Israel, Palestinians face new restrictions amid virus surge

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Ultra-Orthodox Jews wait to cross a closed road to go to their homes as they wear protective face masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus in Ashdod, Israel, Thursday, July 2, 2020. Coronavirus restrictions have gone into effect in Israel after the number of new cases there hit a record high the previous day, while the West Bank prepares to go into lockdown. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

TEL AVIV – Israel said Sunday it has ordered thousands of people into quarantine after a contentious phone surveillance program resumed while Palestinians in the West Bank returned to life under lockdown amid a surge in coronavirus cases in both areas.

Israel’s Health Ministry said Sunday “many” messages had been sent to Israelis following the renewed involvement of the Shin Bet domestic security agency. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that more than 30,000 people were notified they must enter quarantine since Thursday.

Just weeks ago, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank appeared to have contained outbreaks after imposing strict measures early on during a first wave of infections. But after reporting just a handful of new cases a day in early May, both areas have experienced a steady uptick in cases following an easing of restrictions.

“We are at the height of a new corona offensive. This is a very strong outbreak that is growing and spreading in the world and also here,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet.

“We are in a state of emergency,” he said, adding that Israel would need to further clamp down to rein in the virus.

Israel is now reporting around 1,000 new cases a day, higher than its peak during the previous wave. Late Sunday, the parliament's coronavirus committee voted to impose new restrictions limiting gatherings in bars, synagogues and function halls to 50 people. Additional restrictions are expected in the coming days. It is requiring citizens wear masks and has urged more stringent social distancing.

With its contact tracing apparatus struggling to keep up with the mounting caseload, Israel last week redeployed the Shin Bet to use its sophisticated phone surveillance technology to track Israelis who have come in contact with infected people and then notify them that they must enter home quarantine. The measure is typically used to monitor suspected Palestinian militants.

The contentious tactic was used when the outbreak first emerged earlier this year, and when civil rights groups challenged it in the country's Supreme Court, the court threatened to halt its use unless it was put under legislative oversight. The Israeli Knesset has since done so twice using temporary legislation, most recently Wednesday.