Israel in the COVID era
(By Talmoryair – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

The “startup nation” has done it again – but, unfortunately, in the wrong direction. Israel is now plagued with the highest rate of COVID-19 fatalities in the world. Granted, the Jewish state is conducting more tests than most other countries, but this does not alter the fact that nearly 1,000 Israelis, out of a total population of some 9 million, have died as a result.

Therefore, on June 7th, the special government committee has imposed a “closure” on communities with a high infection rate. This will include a ban on entering or leaving the area, the closure of businesses and educational institutions, and restricting the residents to 500 meters/yards of their homes. Prof. Roni Gamzo, the government-appointed expert, does not rule out the possibility of expanding the curfew to the entire country if the fatality rate is not brought under control. In an appeal to the nation, Gamzo declared passionately, “We are in an all-out war!”

And if this were not bad enough, things could go from worse to catastrophe. And why is that? Two major Israeli communities, the ultra-orthodox religious Jews and Israeli Arabs, have played fast and loose with instructions about “maintaining” social distancing and wearing face masks. This has resulted in a high rate of infection in these two communities. For example, in Jerusalem, the rate of infection among residents outside the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods is far lower. 

One of the reasons is that the students attending yeshivas (religious seminaries) recently returned from their summer vacation and are not complying with the restrictions; for instance, they congregate in large study halls where they exchange their opinions on various texts with many in close proximity to one another. In fact, their Chief Rabbi has advised them not to cooperate with the COVID testing. Moreover, it gets worse – the Jewish High Holidays are fast-approaching this month that will all involve communal worship in packed synagogues. 

In the cabinet, ultra-orthodox ministers also charge that Prof. Gamzo even plans to bar communal worship on Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). Moreover, they allege that the CC “Corona Czar” has ignored the mass demonstrations near Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem. For his part, the Prime Minister has taken a backseat role after the COVID fatality rate skyrocketed recently. Bear in mind that Netanyahu is dependent on the political support of the ultra-orthodox parties to preserve his control of the government. 

Then there’s Israel’s Arab community that comprises some 20% of the nearly 9 million population in Israel. By and large, this Arab population has become more and more integrated into Israeli society. Although they do not serve in the IDF, they are an industrious and law-abiding sector. In a strange twist, the Arab citizens actually accuse the Israeli police of not doing enough to ensure law and order in their towns and villages, and with good reason. There are Arab gangs who get their hands on illegal weapons and terrorize their Arab neighbors. Moreover, at weddings and other happy events, there is a tradition of celebrating by shooting into the air. 

Hospital in Israel northern city of Nazareth, the “Arab capital” of Israel (photo by Ori)

There is also a much darker side, based on a tradition of blood feuds between family clans. For example, a young Arab woman, a respected and beloved school teacher, has just been shot dead by accident when a suspected Arab on the other side of the village fired off a few rounds at the other clan’s homes. One of those stray bullets hit the woman in the head, killing her instantly. She was married and the mother of three children. 

It is a fact that if an Arab shooter has shot dead a Jewish woman, there would have been hell to pay, with the Shabak security service and Israeli police pulling out all the stops until the shooter was collared. That is not to say that there will not be a proper investigation, but there is often a built-in resistance to cooperating with the Israeli police, with the clans often preferring to even the score on their own. 

As for an Arab wedding, it is really a big shindig. Hundreds of celebrating family and guests packed together, singing, dancing, and hugging and kissing one another. Naturally, this is very uncomfortable, if not impossible, if you are wearing a facemask in this era of Corona. And this time of the year is the traditional time for Arab weddings, which has led to a significant spike in the spread of COVID-19.

In any case, all this has landed on the desk of Corona trouble-shooter Prof. Gamzo, who has pleaded with both the ultra-orthodox and Arab communities to comply with the restrictions. Otherwise, there will be no alternative but to impose a stricter curfew involving full closure with no one being allowed to leave or enter. As a matter of fact, Prof. Gamzo, a highly-respected hospital director, has accused (indirectly) the politicians for refusing to implement his restrictions earlier on. In fact, he quipped that other medical experts in his place would have resigned over the refusal of the special cabinet committee to earlier implement his recommendations. 

Netanyahu and F-35 Jets for the UAI …

Israel and the United Arab Emirate on the map

The New York Times has reported that Bibi did lend his quiet approval to the US sale of F-35 sleuth warplanes to the United Arab Emirates. This was part and parcel of the deal that induced the first Arab state in the Persian Gulf to make peace with Israel. Previously, Netanyahu categorically denied he had agreed to the sale. A high-level Israeli delegation has just visited Abu Dhabi to finalize the peace accord. The UAE embassy will not be located in Jerusalem, but rather in Tel Aviv, similar to the Egyptian and Jordanian embassies. It turns out Saudi Arabia is also involved, with its approval for Israeli airliners to fly over its territory on their way to the UAE and to the far east. This will drastically reduce the flight distances. 

Undoubtedly, President Trump will see to it that the profitable sale of F-35s to the UAE will be publically disclosed before the upcoming election in the US. Needless to say, this will be a feather in his cap in the current campaign that has seen Trump gradually eroding Joe Biden’s lead. 

Minor Shockwave in Israeli Politics…

Ofer Shelah (CC Yesh Atid, BY-SA 3.0)

Another surprising candidate has thrown his hat into the political ring for future PM. Ofer Shelah, a sidekick of the main opposition party, headed by Yair Lapid, is challenging Lapid for the leadership of the Yesh Atid party. Lapid founded the party years ago to include Benny Gantz, who went on to split and form the current coalition with Netanyahu. Since then, Lapid has conducted a lackluster role of opposition leader. Shelah charges that there is now a need for an internal party election, in effect, accusing Lapid of failing to present a viable alternative to either Netanyahu or Gantz. Shalah, a former paratrooper officer who lost an eye in combat, is a well-spoken and highly respected politician. Maybe he can shake up Israeli politics and provide an alternative for voters opposed to Netanyahu but who are not satisfied with either Gantz or Lapid. 

And finally, after the Gaza-Israeli border boiled over recently, the two sides have apparently opted for a new deal to prevent further escalation to all-out war. And, we sign off with this note – as if COVID-19 were not enough, Israel is now enduring its biggest tropical heatwave in over 100 years. The temperature in Jerusalem soared to 42.8 degrees Celsius, that’s over 109 degrees Fahrenheit!

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