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Israel’s travel ban causes panic and confusion

A friend contacted me this week to ask if reports that Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world because of the coronavirus were fake. They aren’t. Jerusalem has announced a 14-day home quarantine for all travellers arriving from abroad, and non-Israeli citizens have to show they have a place to self-quarantine before they’ll be allowed into the country. It doesn’t matter where you are travelling from – South Africa included – you need to go into isolation for two weeks. This means staying in your bedroom, or moving around your apartment with a mask on, but not going outside under any circumstances. You could get a seven-year prison sentence if you disobey this order.

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Israel

PAULA SLIER

Thousands of flights have also been cancelled. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a difficult decision, “but it’s necessary to maintain public health, and public health is above all else”.

As of Tuesday, eight new cases were diagnosed in the country, bringing to 58 the total number of Israelis who have tested positive.

But life goes on as normal. There is no panicked shopping like there is in other countries, most notably Australia, where there has been mass hoarding of toilet paper to the point where it has created a genuine shortage for some companies. And, typical in times of anxiety, jokes are making the rounds on social media.

These include, “I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been avoiding people since way before the coronavirus,” and memes showing a new greeting – the Wuhan Shake – with people clasping feet rather than hands. According to another joke, “This morning at the post office, while I was in line, two people with masks entered. Total panic! Then, they said, ‘This is a robbery!’ and we all calmed down.”

Israel’s policy is more extreme than that of most developed nations, including those that have been harder hit by the disease. Restricting Israelis from travelling to major European countries and requiring people returning from these countries to self-quarantine has already caused enormous economic damage, particularly to tourism and airlines.

No surprise then that some claim Netanyahu’s decision has political undertones. It’s transpired that the large number of Israelis who recently returned from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) convention in Washington DC weren’t required to self-quarantine. This, in spite of the fact that three people who attended the conference – where American Vice-President Mike Pence and a long list of senators and congressmen were also present – had been diagnosed with the virus.

Eyebrows were further raised when the Israeli tourism minister admitted during an interview that politics and diplomacy played a role in such decision-making when it came to the United States, saying, “The relationship is especially sensitive, and when we make decisions regarding the US, it’s in co-ordination. We won’t take any unilateral steps.”

Some charge that Netanyahu didn’t want to restrict entry from the US – Israel’s closest ally and biggest aid donor – as it would be interpreted as a slap in the face, especially as American President Donald Trump has downplayed the virus. Netanyahu is struggling to build a coalition government, and faces an impending corruption trial. The last thing he needs are angry tweets from a volatile US president. So instead of singling out America, he imposed a blanket ban on travel from all countries.

But there are many Israelis who believe Netanyahu went too far. The restrictions include large community events or mass gatherings of more than 5 000 people; no international conferences in Israel; and the recommendation that that older adults over 60 and people with chronic background diseases avoid gatherings and contact with international travellers.

The local travel industry has been worst hit. Many offices have been forced to close, and it’s questionable whether the smaller ones will recover. Ronnie Shabai, the branch manager of Jerusalem Talmach travel company, says he’s lost 95% of business.

“After the message circulated that all Israelis who don’t have to travel shouldn’t do so, 50% of our trips cancelled within hours. I had to give money back to people who had already paid. I’m closing my office, and I will leave only two agents for both the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv branches. We still have a small number of Israelis travelling inside the country, but that’s also decreasing, and many are cancelling the hotels they booked for Pesach.”

Shabai says it’s never been this bad, not after the 11 September attacks or even during the worst days of the intifada (Palestinian uprisings).

It’s created confusion and more than a little panic to say the least. I’ve spoken to several university students who have been unable to return to Israel as their holidays come to an end, and are stuck abroad wondering how they’ll catch up class. Exams are still underway in some schools, and there’s uncertainty if they will, in fact, take place. Will classes be held? No-one knows, and it’s difficult to determine what’s true and what’s fake from the information being circulated online. The country has also been celebrating Purim, and people who returned from international destinations have been told to stay at home, even if they weren’t in quarantine. Better safe than sorry, so the adage goes. I saw a few costumed revellers dressed up as the coronavirus, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has closed all mosques in the Bethlehem area to prevent the spread of the virus. The PA Ministry of Wakf and Religious Affairs said the decision was in accordance with the state of emergency in the Palestinian territories that was announced by PA President Mahmoud Abbas after 19 people tested positive.

Many locals who work in Israel have been barred from leaving Bethlehem. Residents are critical of the measures, pointing out that they are stricter than those imposed inside Israel, with some suggesting political motives for the decision.

As for elsewhere in the Middle East, there are, at the time of writing, about 7 640 confirmed cases across the region. Iran has the highest number of infections, and its government officials are warning that the number could spike to more than 450 000 patients, many of whom are at risk of dying. Memes and jokes aside, these are sobering numbers.

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Israel

Helen Mirren to play Golda Meir in upcoming film

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(JTA) Academy Award winner Helen Mirren will portray Golda Meir, Israel’s only female prime minister, in an upcoming biopic set during the Yom Kippur War.

Production Golda will begin later this year, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The news follows the announcement last month of another star-powered production on Meir, a series titled Lioness led by Israeli actress Shira Haas of Unorthodox fame.

While Lioness will follow Meir from “her birth in Kiev to her American upbringing in Milwaukee, her role in the formation of Israel, and her rise to become the new nation’s first and only female prime minister”, according to a report in Deadline, Golda will focus on the turbulent Yom Kippur War period.

Along with the rest of Israel, Meir and her all-male cabinet were taken by surprise by the attack on the eve of the holiday in 1973 by Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian forces. The ensuing bloody conflict – chronicled in the recent acclaimed Israeli production Valley of Tears on HBO Max – shattered the nation’s growing sense of confidence at the time in an embattled region.

Golda will be directed by Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the 2018 Academy Award for best short for Skin, a film involving neo-Nazis that he later made into a feature.

“As someone who was born during the Yom Kippur War, I’m honoured to tell this fascinating story about the first and only woman to ever lead Israel,” Nattiv said. “Nicholas Martin’s brilliant script dives into Golda’s final chapter as the country faces a deadly surprise attack during the holiest day of the year, a core of delusional generals undermining Golda’s judgement.

“I couldn’t be more excited to work with the legendary Miss Mirren to bring this epic, emotional, and complex story to life.”

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Bibi or not Bibi – is there even a question?

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“Citizens of Israel – thank you!” wrote Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Hebrew on Twitter shortly after Israeli polls closed on Tuesday night, 23 March.

A few hours later, a delighted crowd welcomed him at his Likud party headquarters in Jerusalem. “Bibi, Bibi!” they shouted, filling a large hall with balloons, banners, and Likud COVID-19 masks.

But the excitement might be misplaced and premature at best.

As the hours ticked into Wednesday morning, the exit polls started changing their initial predictions. Only on Friday afternoon will the final tally be known.

What won’t alter is the fact that the prime minister’s Likud party won the most parliament seats by a large margin. President Reuven Rivlin will therefore task him first with forming a government. But then it gets tricky.

At the time of writing (at midday on Wednesday) exit polls predicted Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc fell short of the 61 seats it needed to secure a majority coalition. The kingmaker could well be the prime minister’s former ally and defence minister, Naftali Bennett. His Yamina (Rightwards) party won at least seven seats, and although Bennett avoided explicitly declaring who he would support, it’s widely expected he’ll join Netanyahu. In return, he’ll exact a high price in terms of ministerial positions and other powerful appointments.

This would bring Netanyahu closer than ever to a narrow government that would include the most extreme elements of Israeli society. Exit polls showed the Religious Zionist Party, that includes far-right and homophobic elements with roots in the overtly racist Kahanist party, receiving enough votes to enter parliament.

Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Israel Democracy Institute, warned that such a coalition could back Netanyahu’s attempts to find a political solution to his legal troubles. “In this case, it will be imperative that elected leaders from across the political spectrum, civil society organisations, and all those who advocate on behalf of a vibrant Israeli democracy, make it emphatically clear that the results of this election don’t constitute a license to promote radical proposals aimed at eroding the legal system and curtailing the rule of law. The health and vitality of Israel’s democratic system could hang in the balance,” he said.

Meanwhile opposition leader Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid (There Is a Future), said he, too, would try to build a coalition to “create a sane government for Israel”.

Speaking early on Wednesday morning, he declared, “At the moment, Netanyahu doesn’t have 61 seats but the change bloc does. We’ll wait for the final results but as it stands, there won’t be a government based on the votes of the racists and homophobes.”

The anti-Netanyahu bloc is far from a homogenous group, consisting of left, right, and centrist factions. They have fewer options in forming a coalition than Netanyahu. Should neither side succeed, it will be back to the polls for Israelis – the fifth election in two years.

Which in part explains why Tuesday’s turnout was the lowest since 2013. Voter fatigue and apathy are starting to sour even the most ardent supporters of Israeli democracy.

The lack of enthusiasm was most noticeable in the Arab community. Many residents confessed they had lost confidence in their representatives and the two main Arab blocs – the Joint List and the breakaway United Arab List (Ra’am), headed by Mansour Abbas – warned of a “disaster” due to the low turnout.

In the 2015 election, the Joint List became the third-largest party in parliament after it won 13 seats. In the 2020 election, it increased to 15, remaining the third-largest party until Yesh Atid split off from Blue and White to lead the opposition.

Earlier this year, Abbas quit the Joint List, indicating his willingness to join a coalition headed by Netanyahu. And the prime minister welcomed him. Whereas in the past Netanyahu “incited” against the Arabs, this time around, he changed his strategy and appealed to Arab-Israelis to vote for him.

He paid rare visits earlier this year to Arab cities in the north of the country purportedly to encourage citizens to get coronavirus vaccinations, but many were suspicious that he was taking advantage of the rift within the alliance of Arab parties.

Netanyahu appeals to some Arab voters because they believe he can make things happen. He’s also promised to focus on the growing violence and crime in the Arab community, economic issues, and the recent normalisation of Israel’s relations with several Arab countries.

As in the previous three rounds, this election was largely seen as a referendum on the tenure of Netanyahu. Personality politics has so overtaken the race that there has been almost no mention of the Palestinians after years of frozen peace talks.

The day before the vote, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh described the election as an “internal” matter for Israelis, but decried the effect on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

Netanyahu used these elections to once again portray himself as a global statesman uniquely qualified to lead Israel through its many security and diplomatic challenges.

But unlike the previous election held last March, he didn’t have the support of former American President Donald Trump smiling alongside him in campaign posters. Instead, Netanyahu made Israel’s coronavirus-vaccination campaign the centrepiece of his re-election bid, repeatedly stressing that he was personally responsible for Israel’s impressively fast rollout.

Only a few short months ago, it seemed that COVID-19 would kill his chances of winning another election, and his critics still accuse him of bungling the management of the pandemic for most of the past year. But most Israelis appreciate his efforts.

This was the first election held in the throes of the pandemic, and five thousand additional polling stations were set up to deal with the situation. Workers in hazmat suits collected ballots in hospital wards while buses were parked outside some polling stations to serve as remote ballot drops for coronavirus-positive or quarantined voters.

As things stand now, it’s unclear if four rounds of elections have resolved the longest political crisis in Israel’s history. The country remains as divided as it has been over the past two years.

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Israelis assists Eswatini with vaccine rollout

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The success of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme may seem like a far-away reality, but it’s actually much closer to home – over the border in fact. An Israel-based non-governmental organisation is working feverishly to assist Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) to build its COVID-19 response, including vaccine rollout, logistics, and public education.

The tiny landlocked nation has been hit hard by the pandemic, symbolised for many in the demise of Prime Minister Ambrose Dlamini four weeks after he contracted the virus. Now IsraAID, the largest humanitarian aid organisation in Israel, is helping it to pick up the pieces and turn its story around.

From earthquakes and hurricanes to epidemics and forced displacement, IsraAID has been at the forefront of responding to major humanitarian crises worldwide since 2001. It has worked in more than 50 countries and at any one time, has about 300 staff members worldwide.

A seven-member team from IsraAID landed in Eswatini on 8 March 2021 for a two-week visit. They were invited by the government, which has vaccines in the pipeline, and wants help with logistics and public education ahead of the rollout. The mission is being funded by South Africa-based Nathan “Natie” Kirsh, a citizen of Eswatini.

The global chief executive of the Kirsh Foundation, Carly Maisel, told the SA Jewish Report that Eswatini’s COVID-19 case load and death count probably exceeded reported numbers. “The country has the highest COVID-19 death rate in Africa, and the highest HIV prevalence in the world. With just more than one million people, nearly 60% of whom live under the national poverty line, it would be easy for Eswatini to be left behind in the global vaccination race.”

Speaking from Eswatini, Molly Bernstein, IsraAID’s development and communications manager, says, “We made it here on one of the first flights following Ben Gurion Airport’s reopening last Sunday. We arrived with experts who can give insight into the main aspects needed to implement a vaccination campaign of this kind: an operations expert; a psychosocial support expert; our medical sector lead and public health nurse; an epidemiologist and physician who specialises in vaccines; our head of global programmes; and a communications and public-outreach lead.

“Since the start of the pandemic, IsraAID has been working non-stop,” she says. “We have responded to COVID-19 in 17 countries worldwide. We aim to use the models we develop in Eswatini to inform further vaccination campaigns around the world, specifically in the global south, through a new Global Vaccine Access initiative. IsraAID has longstanding expertise in public health, emergency medical care, and mental health capacity building. We will utilise the know-how developed during Israel’s successful vaccination rollout to inform its planning in Eswatini, from here moving to other potential locations.

“This visit is an assessment mission to understand the capacity, assets, and needs on the ground, and identify how we can best support these aspects moving forward,” says Bernstein. “We’re working with the government to put together a plan.”

Because the country has been hit so hard, Bernstein says that a crucial component of its work will be to focus on mental health and resilience, particularly in regard to the country’s frontline health workers.

“In order to build an effective public health response, we have to think holistically and prioritise the needs of local communities. We are meeting many inspiring people here on the ground who want to work hard to help Eswatini push forward with vaccinations to decrease the day-to-day impact of the pandemic,” she says.

“The people of Eswatini, including community leaders, government officials, and everyone we’ve met, have been extremely warm and welcoming. They are excited about learning about the vaccination experience in Israel and working together as the rollout launches here in Eswatini.”

Maisel says that the Kirsh Foundation wanted to play a role because it believes that “successfully overcoming the pandemic will be possible only once there is equitable access and widespread adoption of vaccines across all nations”. The Kirsh family has responded to COVID-19 around the globe, particularly in Southern Africa, through food relief, unemployment support, medical equipment, and bridge-loan funding.

In addition, “Mr Kirsh’s roots are firmly in Eswatini, the place he calls home, and his legacy of philanthropy there is extensive,” Maisel says. “Eswatini is the country where he founded his entry into business and where he raised his family. It will forever be an integral part of his identity. Watching the country ravaged by COVID-19 has been heartbreaking for him and the Kirsh family.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Kirsh Foundation has responded to short-term needs such as PPE [personal protective equipment] and food relief [in Eswatini],” says Maisel. “Additionally, the foundation has been examining how it can support the country over the long term, such as by sponsoring local oxygen capabilities.

“Now, we have partnered with IsraAID to help the nation and frontline health workers prepare for vaccine distribution and a potential third wave of the virus. Mr Kirsh speaks to the IsraAID team via video calls, and he has told them that they will have a universal effect on the country.”

IsraAID Chief Executive Yotam Polizer told the SA Jewish Report, “It’s ground breaking because there are few initiatives to support the global south during COVID-19, specifically with vaccination campaigns. It’s also ground breaking because it’s the first time that an Israeli organisation is using the expertise developed in Israel as part of its vaccination campaign, and is bringing this know-how to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities.”

The Kirsh Foundation has been a longstanding supporter of IsraAID’s world-renowned global initiatives. “Bringing together the two countries central to Mr Kirsh’s philanthropic vision was a ‘no brainer’ in this case,” says Maisel.

“IsraAID has become synonymous with rapid response to humanitarian crises around the world. We know that it’s up to the daunting task of preparing for a national vaccine rollout, not just because of its proven ability to deliver on its mission, but because of the unique insights it will bring from the unparalleled success of Israel’s vaccination campaign.

“We hope IsraAID will be able to leverage its experience in Eswatini to roll out its global vaccine initiative throughout the rest of Africa, where many countries are in need of its logistical and medical insight,” she says.

Asked if the organisation would carry out a similar mission in South Africa, Polizer says, “Our goal at IsraAID is to support the most vulnerable, regardless of politics. We’ve worked in countries that didn’t even have diplomatic relations with Israel, and we would be happy to support communities affected in South Africa in the future. We believe that through long-term humanitarian work, we can build bridges between people and countries. We would also love to discuss opportunities to partner with individuals and institutions in the South African Jewish community in the future. COVID-19 won’t be over for us, here [in Israel], until it is over for everyone, everywhere.”

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