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Israeli health minister plans to resign amid virus crisis

AP , Sunday 26 Apr 2020
Israel
A cat sits on a fruit stand as people wear face masks in Jerusalem's main market, after the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown eased around the country April 26, 2020. (Photo: Reuters)
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Israel's embattled health minister on Sunday said he would step down following a public uproar over his handling of the coronavirus crisis and his own COVID-19 infection.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman informed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he would step aside as the country forms a new government.

He made no mention of his much-criticized performance at the Health Ministry, which he has led for most of the past decade, and instead said he would instead take over the Construction Ministry.

In a statement, he said he ``decided not to return to the Health Ministry for a fourth time, and prefers to lead a sweeping development for solving the housing crisis in Israel in the Housing Ministry.''

The government has generally been lauded for keeping the coronavirus crisis in check. It has infected over 15,000 Israelis and killed nearly 200 people, but Israel has not seen its health system overwhelmed like hard-hit places such as Italy or New York.

Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox politician with no formal medical training, has come under criticism for appearing ill-prepared at news conferences and reportedly resisting proposals to tighten lockdown measures that would affect the country's religious community. Early this month, Litzman was diagnosed with COVID-19, apparently after ignoring his own ministry's orders to avoid group prayer in public places. He has since recovered.

The coronavirus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, who recover within a few weeks. But it can cause severe illness or death, particularly in older patients or those with underlying health problems.

With the crisis appearing to be in check, the government announced new easing measures Sunday.

Barbershops, beauty salons and other small businesses reopened, and restaurants were permitted to serve takeout orders for the first time in nearly two months. Last week, some shops were allowed to open as well. Malls and outdoor markets, however, remain closed out of concern of a renewed outbreak of the disease.

The restrictions on the operation of many small businesses has helped propel unemployment in Israel to over 25% since the beginning of March.

Merchants at Jerusalem's large central Mahane Yehuda outdoor market protested its continued closure while many other businesses, including furniture giant IKEA, were allowed to reopen.

The Hebrew business paper The Marker reported that the owners of IKEA's Israeli franchisee have donated at least $1.3 million in recent years to the ultra-Orthodox organization that Litzman belongs to.

Litzman denied any connection between IKEA Israel and ultra-Orthodox officials and the government's decision to permit the Swedish furniture chain to open its four locations in Israel.

Despite the easing of restrictions, the government has approved a nationwide lockdown that will close military cemeteries on Memorial Day on Tuesday and cancel public celebrations for Wednesday's Independence Day.

The government has also ordered the closure of stores in Muslim communities from 6:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m. until the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

 

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