In an alleyway in the Greek Colony neighbourhood of Jerusalem on Sunday, a small group of Israeli police officers slipped out of patrol cars and into protective suits designed to ward off the coronavirus.
The neighbours gawked as the officers knocked on door after door, looking for a man recently back from Germany.
Under Israeli law, the man was required to stay indoors in self isolation for 14 days. But someone had spotted him on the street and reported him to a national hotline. Now the police were at his door, dressed like spacemen, scolding him to remain inside or risk a large fine, or even detention. Chastened, he promised to stay in his house.
All across Israel, similar scenes have played out since the start of March, as the government has tried, with varying degrees of success, to keep Israelis indoors and break the chain of infection. So far, the country has recorded more than 1,000 cases of the virus and one death.
Despite admonishments from Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s mild-mannered president, and apocalyptic warnings from its pugnacious prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, thousands of Israeli’s have continued to gather on beaches and stroll the boulevards in the spring weather.
In response, Israel has turned its extensive policing and antiterrorism machinery to the challenge that many countries now face: how to keep enough of its population indoors to avoid moving to a nationwide shutdown.
Since last week, Israel’s shadowy Shin Bet security service has tracked the mobile phones of infected people and sent messages to those with whom they may have crossed paths, instructing them to self-isolate for 14 days. The measures were authorised by Mr Netanyahu with an emergency decree, without parliamentary approval.
The Israeli police has leant on an older system, one that can been even more reliable than technology: the nosy neighbour.
Police officers have so far carried out as many as 20,000 inspections after phone calls to the national tip line for quarantine evaders. Hundreds of people — like the man recently returned from Germany — have been personally visited by hazmat-suited officers, according to Micky Rosenfeld, a spokesman for the Israel National Police.
“The virus is everywhere and anyone can pass it on to anyone,” Mr Rosenfeld said. “That’s why these safety measures are so absolutely important — you have to think two weeks ahead.”
The tactic has resulted in strange dystopian footage, shared publicly by the police to prove how serious they are about enforcing self-isolation: officers in protective suits chasing otherwise healthy-looking Israelis, wrestling them to the ground and dragging them off to complete their quarantine.
In the hope of avoiding a nationwide shutdown like those seen in Italy, France and the UK, the police have broken up weddings, forced people to go to the hospital and shut down businesses.
It’s risky work. Some 480 police are in quarantine for suspected exposure to the coronavirus. Those officers currently on coronavirus patrols are anxious not to join them. “Of course my family is worried,” said one, who asked not be named. “But I tell my wife this is a national duty I am called to do.”
Still, despite their best efforts, Israel may eventually have to move to a full lockdown, says Roni Berkowitz, a ministry of health official who has joined some of the daily patrols. “If it goes on like this, within weeks there will have to be more severe measures to protect the public,” he said.
The authorities have particularly struggled to enforce social distancing within Israel’s ultraorthodox communities. On Sunday, hundreds of ultraorthodox Jews scuffled with the police on the streets of Mea Shearim, a segregated community in Jerusalem. One ultraorthodox man, who defied his quarantine orders, was arrested at a 150-person wedding.
Dozens of synagogues initially resisted closing and a few rabbis have needed heavy-handed treatment to convince them to ask their community — which makes up about 10 per cent of the population — to respect the social distancing that Mr Netanyahu demands in daily television broadcasts.
For Mr Netanyahu, who is serving as caretaker prime minister, the successful management of the crisis could give him a political boost that the last elections, which left him three seats short of a majority, did not.
His approval ratings have improved based on his response to the pandemic so far. He moved to isolate Israel from the outside world long before other nations decided to choke off international travel. The closure of the country’s courts has also meant that his pending corruption trial has been delayed to May 24.
But putting some 60,000 people into self-isolation, trying to test up to 5,000 people a day and shuttering non-essential businesses — which has already seen unemployment spike from 4 per cent to nearly 18 per cent in two weeks — has still not measurably slowed down the rate of infections. “Not yet,” said an aide to the prime minister. “These things take time.”
Now as the number of new cases keep climbing daily, Mr Netanyahu may be forced to lock down the entire country. That, said the aide, “would send the economy into a freefall, but we are preparing for it. The question is not when, but for how long? And what does Israel look like in the end?”