How Israel's 'iron-fist' approach to the coronavirus led to the world's worst second wave

James Rothwell
Israeli police officers enforce coronavirus regulations in Jerusalem's Old City - AFP

With a former special forces commander at its helm and an army of young conscripts, Israel seemed well-prepared to tackle the coronavirus with ruthless military precision.

As the number of infections climbed steadily in March, the army and Israel’s security agencies were deployed to help control the outbreak, while all borders were sealed to foreigners and citizens urged not to travel more than a hundred yards beyond their homes.

By mid-May, the rate of infection had fallen to just a few dozen cases per day, prompting Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, to reopen the economy and declare a victory over the virus.

But this week, Israel is struggling to contain a severe second wave of coronavirus which has unleashed more than 1,000 infections per day, overwhelmed testing capacity and led to the country’s top health official resigning from the government in protest.

Just weeks after lifting its tough lockdown measures, Israel’s Covid-19 infection rate has increased by more than 500 per cent, with some 1,600 new cases recorded on Thursday alone.

It is understood that the decision to reopen Israel’s schools, as well as lifting a ban on public gatherings such as weddings, immediately triggered a surge in coronavirus infections which went on to break the previous record of 738 cases in one day in March.  

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a press briefing wearing a mask - POOL EPA 

The second wave has prompted experts to warn that the Jewish state has “lost control” of the virus, while the country’s public health director warned that the economy had reopened too quickly as she dramatically resigned in a Facebook post.

The powerful second wave in Israel could raise difficult questions for the British government as it reopens pubs and encourages people to eat out at restaurants.  

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has warned that he may soon have to reimpose a full lockdown to help tackle the second wave of the virus, while bars and event halls have already been closed as a precaution.

As experts warned the number of infections is likely to climb even higher, Israel’s director of public health announced her resignation on Tuesday as she warned that the Jewish state was “heading to a dangerous place.”

“To my regret, for a number of weeks now, the handling of the outbreak has lost direction,” wrote Prof Siegal Sadetzki, who was Israel’s most senior health official, in a post on Facebook.  

She added: “The achievements in dealing with the first wave [of infections] were cancelled out by the broad and swift opening of the economy.”

Large numbers of Israeli police were deployed to central Jerusalem this week, issuing fines to those without face masks, which are compulsory in Israel.

“This wave is much stronger, and it is affecting everybody. People now are taking it seriously,” said Abraham Levy, the 71-year-old owner of a fruit market in Jerusalem’s bustling Mahane Yehuda market.

“In my opinion we opened the businesses and the schools too fast,” but said, but added that he had little choice but to reopen his own store as he lost 20,000 shekels (£4,600) in revenue during the first wave of coronavirus.

Israeli healthcare workers speak with a man who wants to test himself for the coronavirus at a testing center for migrants in Tel Aviv, Israel - AP

In the West Bank, which went back into lockdown last week as the situation worsened, the Palestinian Authority said it was extending lockdown to try and control the resurgence.  

In Gaza, which is controlled by the militant group Hamas, official figures state that there have been only around 70 infections and one death.

The second wave is unfolding against a particularly tense political backdrop is Israel, where Mr Netanyahu had been planning to annex parts of the West Bank earlier this month.

The controversial move was delayed in part due to the resurgence of coronavirus, as well as reports of hesitation in Washington, which is yet to give its final approval.

The Times of Israel, one of the country’s leading English language newspapers, has described the second wave as a “cautionary tale” for other countries.

“After inspiring worldwide praise, Israel’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has now emerged globally as a blueprint for how not to reopen the economy too fast as a second wave of infections, worse than the first, sweeps the nation,” the newspaper warned.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting.