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Israel to Celebrate Jewish New Year Under a Second Lockdown


JERUSALEM — Israel is heading back into a nationwide lockdown for at least three weeks starting on Friday, the eve of the Jewish New Year holiday, in the clearest sign yet of the government’s failure to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The announcement on Sunday came barely four months after Israel emerged from its last lockdown — too hastily, many critics said — and as its per capita infection rate rose to among the highest in the world. More than 1,100 people in the country have died from the virus.

The public sector and some private businesses will continue to work under tight limitations, and citizens will only be allowed to move within 500 yards of their homes. Schools, which reopened for the new school year on Sept. 1, will also close on Friday for the duration of the lockdown.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the drastic and unpopular measures in a televised address on Sunday, shortly before he boarded a flight to Washington, D.C. for a ceremony at the White House ushering in formal Israeli diplomatic and business ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

After initially winning international praise for taking swift action to contain the first wave of the virus, the government’s bungled response to the second wave appeared all the more stunning. Israel is one of the first countries to have to impose a second, nationwide lockdown.

Mr. Netanyahu tried to put a positive spin on the turnabout and said many countries were experiencing a similar “accordion” effect, easing and tightening restrictions according to the changing rate of infection.

“We were among the first in the world to understand the scope of the danger,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “We closed the skies and implemented lockdown.”

“Because we were among the first to close the economy, we could be among the first to reopen it,” he added. “Because we were among the first to reopen the economy, our economy is in a better situation than most economies around the world.”

But Israel’s health officials had “raised a red flag,” he said, warning of a jump in the number of serious cases and deaths, of hospital teams becoming worn out and of the double danger of the virus and influenza that winter would bring.

The lockdown decision came after hours of acrimonious debate in the government, with ministers blaming each other for the situation and pressing for last minute policy changes — a hallmark of the confused handling of the crisis in recent months. No decision has been taken yet on whether the airport will remain open to international travel.

Earlier Sunday, an ultra-Orthodox member of Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet resigned from the government over the looming lockdown. Yaakov Litzman, the minister of housing and construction, was furious that the restrictions would coincide with Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the annual day of fasting and atonement, and that worshipers would be allowed in synagogues only in limited numbers. He said the government had delayed acting earlier for fear of spoiling Israelis’ summer vacation plans.

Dr. Ronni Gamzu, the country’s virus czar, argued that a lockdown over the Jewish holidays would do less economic damage and would prevent large family gatherings where the virus could spread.

“Believe me, this is the lesser of evils,” Dr. Gamzu said on Sunday from home quarantine, after he had been in contact with a confirmed case. His earlier attempts to impose less widespread restrictions were delayed and watered down by the demands of political and religious groups until they became ineffective.

Experts said the government zigzagging also dimmed the prospects of lockdown compliance, given the erosion of public trust in the authorities.

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