Self-employed workers and small business owners took to the streets on Sunday, holding angry protests outside the Knesset and President's Residence in Jerusalem, as well as in Haifa and Tel Aviv, against insufficient financial assistance offered by the government.
The most significant display of public discontent to date occurred as the Knesset heard that only 3,000 of 41,000 requests for loans made by small- and medium-sized businesses have been considered to date. Approximately 1,900 requests have been approved.
The protests also came as Israel's death toll from COVID-19 climbed to 172. Among the latest dead is Israel's youngest victim: a 29-year-old woman who suffered from severe pre-existing medical conditions and was being treated at Hadassah Hospital. The next youngest patient to fall victim to the disease in Israel was 37.
A total of 13,491 cases of coronavirus were confirmed as of Sunday night. Some 146 people were in serious condition, including 109 who require ventilation. A total of 3,754 patients have recovered to date.
"The incompetence of the Israeli government in its program providing assistance to the self-employed and small businesses causes us to repeatedly risk thousands of people at demonstrations in order to shock decision-makers and, above all, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu," said Roee Cohen, president of the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses (LAHAV), outside the Knesset.
"The weird plan that was developed in the Finance Ministry reflects its unreceptive nature and lack of understanding of the scale of the crisis in the business sector. There are no other words but to say that the Finance Ministry and the Budget Department are leading us to an unprecedented economic catastrophe."
According to Cohen, compensation for businesses must be based on decreased turnover, similar to mechanisms in place for war and drought damage, and financed by real estate purchase taxes gathered by the government.
President Reuven Rivlin invited two demonstrators – Lucy, a 45-year-old kindergarten teacher, and Abir Kara, the founder of a self-employed Facebook movement – into his residence to discuss their complaints.
"This is an emergency situation which is like war, and we must see the big picture without abandoning anyone," said Rivlin. "What you said here will be relayed as you said it. You came to me and said what you had to say and I will deal with it."
Some semblance of normalcy returned to Israel's main streets for business on Sunday, hours after reduced coronavirus restrictions approved by the government gave some air to the nation's choking retail sector.
Opticians, electrical supply stores, laundries and shoe repair specialists were among the first permitted to open their doors on Sunday after weeks of gathering dust. Footfall is likely to remain light for some time, and malls remain shuttered for the time being.
For Moti Vertenshtein, the owner of his family-run home decor store Shidot v'Od in Kfar Saba, immediately opening the doors to customers was not a straightforward decision.
"There were some doubts about opening today, there aren't people in the streets," he said, adding that many potential consumers are reluctant to spend money at this time.
"We haven't been working for more than a month and a half, we have loads of stock and the banks are putting pressure on us. We are lifting our heads up and we hope that it will be okay."
Echoing the complaints of many self-employed workers and small business owners, Vertenshtein said he hasn't received any government assistance. Employee-owned businesses, such as his, have struggled to receive aid.
Speaking to the Knesset Finance Committee on Sunday, Accountant-General Rony Hizkiyahu promised that government-secured loans for small businesses would be granted at a faster pace during the coming week, now that the Passover holiday has ended. "Hundreds of applications" will be considered every day, he said.
Responding to Hizkiyahu's comments, temporary Knesset Finance Committee chairman MK Oded Forer (Yisrael Beytenu) said increasing the speed of loan allocations was like going "full gas while in neutral."
"We approved the fund a month ago and we warned that Passover would arrive, and that there would be no [businesses] to give these loans to once they start moving," said Forer. "A significant share of businesses that applied for the loans will not survive until it arrives, and that should be emphasized."
But Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion said that for the vendors of the city's Mahane Yehuda open-air market, a change in policy is necessary now. In a letter to Netanyahu and Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, he said that the Jerusalem Municipality “is ready to take responsibility for the Mahane Yehuda open-air market," including putting in place "municipal supervision to ensure that Health Ministry guidelines are enforced" while stores are open.
"The economic losses incurred by market traders in Mahane Yehuda, mostly defined as small- and medium-sized businesses, are very large and there is a real concern for the total economic collapse of many of them,” Lion wrote.
In light of encouraging data, Litzman, Interior Minister Arye Deri and Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov agreed to lighten restrictions on haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods in Jerusalem and on the haredi city of Bnei Brak.
The mayors of both cities committed to relocating at least half of their sick patients to “coronavirus hotels” by the end of the week.
A special discussion on the topic will be held on Monday.
Finance Ministry budget-director Shaul Meridor said that authorities are likely to enable the reopening of all retail stores after Independence Day (April 29) should positive health trends continue.
"In terms of retail, we see great demand both from consumers and many employees, usually with low wages," Meridor told Army Radio. "This is the start, and we have opened less than half of all shops. If we continue to see positive trends, I believe that after Independence Day, we will see the full opening of retail shops – of course, according to the current [Health Ministry] requirements."
Meridor said measures approved by the government on Sunday morning will enable more than two million people to open their businesses fully, as long as they meet the "purple seal" hygiene criteria.
Whoever can work from home, should still work from home, he said. Those at high-risk of infection – with underlying medical conditions or over the age of 67 – are also asked to stay home.
The new regulations are in effect until April 30. During that time, the Health Ministry will continue to test people for coronavirus and closely monitor the trend line.
Bar Siman Tov told Channel 12 that there would likely be no additional relief for the next two weeks.
"We hope the public behaves well and the trends are stable and positive and we can take more leeway,” he said. “It is better to move in small steps.”