Israeli border policemen patrol Jerusalem's main market during closure on September 25, 2020. AFP
Israel tightened COVID-19 lockdown measures on Friday and critics accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of trying to curb protests against his handling of the health and economic crises.
Netanyahu's government decided on Thursday to tighten a three-week lockdown imposed on Sept. 18, forcing Israelis to stay mostly at home, shutting down most businesses and curbing group prayers during the Jewish high-holiday season.
The measures had also sought to restrict citizens' protests to within 1 km (0.6 miles) of their homes, which would have effectively halted protests outside Netanyahu's residence over his handling of the economy, the pandemic and over corruption allegations. He denies all wrongdoing.
But parliament failed to agree on that measure before the tightened lockdown took effect on Friday, meaning the weekly demonstrations outside Netanyahu's residence can continue.
In an attempt to bypass parliament, Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party earlier said it had proposed for cabinet approval "emergency regulations for a few days to prevent mass demonstrations that would cause the public to disregard the closure and endanger many lives".
It was not clear whether Likud's emergency measures would win cabinet approval. Defence Minister Benny Gantz said his Blue and White party "will not allow emergency regulations to be used to prevent demonstrations".
"The decision on a stringent lockdown was designed to stop the spread of the virus, not to block protests," he wrote on Twitter.
Without mentioning the curbs on protests, Netanyahu defended the new measures on Thursday, saying Israelis had not complied with social distancing requirements.
"Wake up. Enough is enough. We are in a different reality. Something needs to be done and it must be done now - a tight lockdown, especially during the holidays, when the economic cost is much lower," he said in public remarks.
The Movement for Quality of Government, a civil liberties group and critic of Netanyahu's government, said: "Despite the tightening of the lockdown, we will continue to protest in accordance with the law and with approval from Israel's police."
A survey published by the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute on Wednesday showed only 27% of Israelis trust Netanyahu’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
Israel imposed its first lockdown to counter the spread of COVID-19 in late March and relaxed it in May as new cases tapered off. But infections have surged again in recent weeks, reaching daily highs of more than 7,000.
The cost of the entire three-week closure from Sept. 18 is estimated at between 11 and 12 billion shekels ($3.2-$3.5 billion), Shira Greenberg, the chief economist at Israel's finance ministry, said in a statement on Friday.
The Bank of Israel said the cost of the tightened portion of the lockdown, due to last two weeks from Sept. 25, would be around 10 billion shekels.
Any additional week of closure thereafter would cost the economy around 9 billion shekels, the central bank said.