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Are Israel's latest Omicron policies based on caution – or overreaction?

Bracelets for the vaccinated when entering malls and house confinement for the unvaccinated are all up for discussion this week

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Minister of Health Nitzan Horowitz and senior health officials hold a press conference in Tel Aviv, Nov. 26, 2021. (Photo: Moti Milrod/POOL)

Israeli authorities are ramping up restrictions and considering imposing stricter measures officially designed to prevent an outbreak of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19. 

In late November, Israel became one of very few countries to ban entry to all foreigners due to this new virus mutation. 

However, the main target of the measures are unvaccinated Israeli citizens. Senior Israeli officials are increasingly in favor of making COVID vaccination mandatory in Israel. Some Israeli ministers want to require unvaccinated citizens to wear a distinct bracelet while entering malls and confining their freedom of movement to only essential places such as supermarkets and pharmacies. 

Omer Bar-Lev, Israel’s minister of Public Security, even said this week that authorities should consider making a Green Passport mandatory for citizens who want to leave their homes. 

If implemented, these highly controversial measures are expected to bring about legal challenges for undermining fundamental democratic rights. And they could potentially cast dark associations to 1930s Europe, the very antithesis to the founding of the Jewish state. 

Are Israel’s current controversial Omicron measures supported by documented data? Or are they overreactions sparked by panic and causing division in society? 

Speaking at the weekly Cabinet meeting on Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett justified Israel’s harsh Omicron measures by inaccurately claiming that two British children had died from the Omicron variant. 

"The Omicron variant also attacks children. We see this in other countries and are also seeing this in Israel. Just this week two middle school classmates in England died from Omicron. One was not vaccinated at all, and the second, it seems, was only partially vaccinated. We are also seeing children being struck in Israel,” Bennett said

However, Bennett’s claim turned out to be false. No children have so far died from the Omicron variant in the United Kingdom, according to an investigation by Israeli Channel 12 News. Bennett later posted a retraction on Facebook.

Bennett also warned that if immediate steps were not taken to curb the Omicron virus, “we will reach a lockdown.”

However, roughly two weeks since the Omicron variant was identified in southern Africa, there are currently only around 55 confirmed cases in Israel, the overwhelming majority with mild or no symptoms. 

The Israeli government’s current skittish approach to Omicron is not supported by international data. 

The World Health Organization recently urged people and countries worldwide not to panic, stressing that it had so far not seen any reports of deaths caused by the new Omicron virus variant. 

But the Israeli government does not appear to be listening. Speaking at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting, Bennett defended the government’s harsh policies, including the total travel ban on all foreigners. 

"Two weeks ago, when we started tightening border controls regarding entry to Israel following what was then a new coronavirus mutation, there were those who said we were exaggerating, and now everyone understands that we were not exaggerating. We simply took early and determined action just as was needed. Other countries hesitated and they are already swamped with the Omicron variant even as we speak,” Bennett said. 

In addition, Israel’s Health Ministry announced on Sunday that the United Kingdom and Denmark would become labeled “red countries” and Israelis would be banned from traveling there. Despite the recent increase of daily cases in Denmark, life continues mostly as normal and there are currently only 64 seriously ill Danish patients compared to 100 in Israel.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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