Israel, Palestinians tighten restrictions as coronavirus reemerges

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian authorities have brought back some coronavirus restrictions after the number of new cases jumped in what officials fear could herald a “second wave” of infections.

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Israel’s cabinet on Wednesday approved legislation to resume the use of Shin Bet counter-terrorism surveillance technology to track infections, a practice that had been halted on June 9 amid objections by privacy watchdogs, officials said.

A partial lockdown went into effect in a town in central Israel and several neighborhoods in the city of Tiberias where infection rates were particularly high.

The Palestinian Authority put the West Bank city of Hebron and announced that this Friday’s public prayers would be suspended, though mosques would otherwise remain open in line with health precautions.

Israel was one of the first countries to close its borders and impose restrictions when the global pandemic first emerged and the Palestinians quickly followed suit.

The campaign took a major economic toll, but it worked.

An initial spike of hundreds of daily cases dropped to single digits. Israel has reported 308 fatalities, much less than many developed countries, and three people have died from the virus in the Palestinian territories.

The restrictions have since been gradually eased in a bid to revive businesses that had closed, and with it infection numbers have slowly risen. On Tuesday, Israel saw 428 new cases and the Palestinians reported 179, the highest number to date.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he expected more communities would be added to the lockdown list and urged Israelis to follow social distancing guidelines. On Monday he gave police the authority to hand out 500 shekel ($146) fines to people not wearing masks in public.

Despite the spike in cases, Israel is unlikely to reimpose a full lockdown, during which unemployment soared. A 100-billion-shekel stimulus plan is already pushing the country’s budget deficit in 2020 to an estimated 11% of gross domestic product.

“Economic reserves are low with a limited arsenal for policymakers. This current state of affairs makes it very difficult to reimpose a closure,” Bank Hapoalim, the country’s biggest lender, said in a research report.

($1 = 3.4249 shekels)

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Rami Ayyub, Tova Cohen, Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky