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Police deploy in force as virus-struck Bnei Brak becomes ‘restricted zone’

Police were deploying in force in Bnei Brak Friday morning, setting up dozens of checkpoints at entrances and exits to the central city, hours after the cabinet declared the coronavirus hotspot a “restricted zone.”

Authorities said over 1,000 officers had been sent into the city to patrol, maintain and enforce the closure. Residents will not be allowed to leave the city except under special circumstances, officials said. Non-residents will not be permitted to enter.

The forces will also work to limit unnecessary movement within the city as residents are instructed to follow national guidelines to stay at home unless in need of basic necessities.

Police were using drones and other monitoring methods to maintain the lockdown.

Meanwhile, ill people and those most at risk will be taken out of the city to quarantine, to limit the spread of the pathogen within Bnei Brak.

Police Chief Superintendent Roee Waldman, head of the Police Investigations Department, told Army Radio: “In the next few hours residents will feel a high presence of policemen and soldiers who will remove people to quarantine.”

He said if forces encountered resistance they were authorized to use “proportionate force.”

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the IDF’s Home Front Command will be in charge of providing assistance to residents and the municipality while police will maintain responsibility for the overall closure.

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher, who lives in Bnei Brak, on Friday protested the use of armed police officers, asking Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, whose office oversees the police, to ban weapons at the checkpoints set up across the city.

During the closure, aid services and providers of essential supplies will be allowed in, as well as journalists. The closure will initially last for seven days, with the option to be extended by ministers by five days at a time.

The cabinet also approved the formation of a ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that will be charged with determining whether additional towns should be declared “restriction zones” in order to curb the outbreak.

One of the towns mentioned by Health Minister Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov during the Thursday evening cabinet meeting was the ultra-Orthodox city of Elad, which has seen dozens of confirmed cases, according to Channel 13.

The cabinet meeting was held over conference call.

Netanyahu and Bar Siman-Tov are in quarantine, after Health Minister Yaakov Litzman was diagnosed with the coronavirus on Thursday.

The ministers also approved a measure requiring anyone returning from abroad, who does not have somewhere to isolate for two weeks according to Health Ministry guidelines, to be placed in a state-run isolation facility.

The cabinet also authorized chief district physicians and HMO heads to order patients placed in state-run quarantine, if they deem it necessary.

Civilians will be authorized to petition such orders, though it was not immediately clear if authorities will be allowed to forcibly place them in a state-appointed facility while their petition is being deliberated.

The approved regulations stipulate that those who refuse orders to enter state facilities or who violate quarantine orders will be fined NIS 5,000 ($1,370).

Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu approved a plan allowing the Israel Defense Forces to remove some 4,500 people above the age of 80 from Bnei Brak, placing those residents most at risk of falling ill from the coronavirus in state-run isolation hotels.

The plan was drawn up by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, in cooperation with authorities in Bnei Brak, and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose office will be providing the NIS 75 million ($20.5 million) funding necessary to carry it out.

With a population of 200,000, Bnei Brak has seen the second-highest number of infections of all Israeli cities in total numbers, and the highest rate by far per capita.

On Friday, the Health Ministry said there were 966 virus cases in Bnei Brak, 418 of which were confirmed in the past three days.

The isolation hotels, run by the Home Front Command, are being adapted to fit the lifestyles of the Haredi residents.

On Thursday a top health official speculated during his testimony in front of a Knesset panel that nearly 40 percent of Bnei Brak residents had contracted the coronavirus.

Dr. Ran Saar, who runs the Maccabi health maintenance organization, said that according to his group’s projections, Bnei Brak was harboring tens of thousands of hidden cases that had not been confirmed by testing and called for government action to prevent an even larger outbreak during the Passover holiday.

The claim would put the number of sick in Bnei Brak at around 75,000, much higher than the 900 cases confirmed there by official Health Ministry data.