Astrid Ling

As the COVID-19 crisis developed, Israel responded with immediate and decisive action that mitigated infection and saved lives. However, an early model for many, Israel’s response has unraveled over the past four months. The country’s unique emergency powers revealed democratic vulnerabilities, religious tensions exposed systemic inequalities and a hasty exit strategy has led to a resurgence of infection. By June 1, Israel had confirmed 17,169 cases and 285 deaths and case count more than doubled by mid-July.

While some of Israel’s early success can surely be attributed to its existing features, like its advanced healthcare system, strong fiscal capacity and modest population, it was the nation’s timely and effective government action that curbed imported infection. At the end of January, Israel was quick to impose full travel restrictions on China, which was strategically extended to six high-risk countries and territories in Asia and five states in Europe. By early March, all incoming travellers were required to self-isolate for fourteen days, which was strictly enforced by a special task force.

Domestic measures were equally stringent and tailored to Israel’s Jewish majority. By mid-March, schools were closed, office capacities were reduced to 30 percent, and socially distant gatherings were limited to ten people — just enough for group prayer. Shortly after, public transport capacity was reduced to 25 percent, synagogues were ordered closed and Israelis were required to stay within 100 metres of their homes. As a result of these comprehensive measures, Israel experienced especially high unemployment rates — peaking at 27.5 percent at the end of April up from 3.9 percent in February.

Defining to Israel’s COVID-19 response is its unique emergency powers, which simultaneously enabled its quick and firm action while exposing significant democratic vulnerabilities. Executive control was used to implement timely and specialized orders — and to great effect. In anticipation of high intercity travel around Passover, the Cabinet authorized the enforceable confinement of Jewish Israelis to seven specialized city zones, which citizens widely adhered to. The Cabinet also bypassed the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) to approve the usage of cellphone data for contact tracing, which reportedly identified over 500 infections before it was banned by the Supreme Court.

Conversely, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been accused of exploiting the pandemic to retain power. Amid political deadlock, Netanyahu’s caretaker government utilized its centralized control to temporarily adjourn parliament and suspend non-urgent court activities — including his own corruption trial. While the public merits of these actions are questionable, Netanyahu has undeniably benefitted from the pandemic. In April, he announced an unprecedented emergency coalition government with formal rival Benny Gantz — allowing him to remain Prime Minister until October 2021.

Equally characteristic of Israel’s COVID-19 story is its response to vulnerable minority groups — namely the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) and Arab-Israelis, who represent 12 and 20 percent of the population respectively. While they share common tensions with secular Israelis, the two groups are often treated differently by the government.

Some of Israel’s largest outbreaks occurred in Haredi communities like Bnei Brak because their high population densities, technological disconnection, and distrust in the government made them uniquely susceptible to COVID-19. In Bnei Brak, the cabinet swiftly restricted all access to the city and local leaders successfully partnered with the Israeli Defense Force to increase virus testing, disseminate information and deliver food door to door.

In contrast, Arab-Israelis were treated as an afterthought. While they account for 17 percent of Israel’s doctors, 25 percent of its nurses, and 50 percent of its pharmacists, many Arab-Israelis struggled to access virus testing and timely information. Although Israeli officials subsequently increased temporary testing facilities in Arab neighbourhoods and expanded information available in Arabic, it is hard to view these shortcomings as coincidental. Given the tendencies of the current government to exclude Arab-Israelis from mainstream Jewish-Israeli identity, the initial testing and language blunders are more likely symptoms of systemic marginalization.

In the West Bank and Gaza, cases have only recently surged with Israel’s second wave of infection. Of the 150,000 Palestinians who typically depend on Israel for work, as many as 45,000 labourers continued to travel to Israel during the first wave amid concerns that they would spread the virus upon returning home. The Israeli government and Palestinian Authority initially collaborated to transport crucial medical and testing supplies to the West Bank and Gaza. However, recent aid from the United Arab Emirates has been repeatedly denied by the PA after flying through Israel without sufficient coordination. As annexation talks escalate, tensions have undoubtedly risen — ending a unique chance for cooperation against a common threat.

After its abrupt reopening in May, Israel continues to report peak levels of COVID-19 cases daily. Among the first to impose travel restrictions on others, Israel was excluded from the EU’s first safe travel list in June. Its pandemic response highlights lessons for all: mitigating early infection requires quick, strict and strategic action, a compromise must be made between efficiency and democracy, and minority groups must not be left behind. As Israel looks to the future, uncertainty is strong as the nation grapples with a strong second wave of illness amid domestic protests, Netanyahu’s corruption trial and pending annexation plans.

Part of the COVID Comparative Project. View the complete series.