JERUSALEM — Once again, COVID-19 is out of control in Israel, and public gatherings are prohibited.
On Sunday, a full third national lockdown is set to go into effect. All businesses, parks, hotels and entertainment venues will be shuttered. Only grocery stores, pharmacies, hospitals and medical clinics will be open. No one will be allowed to go beyond 1,000 meters of their home. And public and family gatherings of all kinds will be prohibited with the exception of weddings, funerals and circumcisions are permitted under restrictions of 10 people indoors and 20 outdoors.
The full lockdown will last at least 14 days.
Yet on Thursday, the Israeli government made an exception. Church congregations of up to 100 people were permitted to meet outside for prayer on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. This will also apply to Orthodox Christmas on Jan. 6 and Armenian Christmas on Jan. 18.
Approximately 180,000 followers of Jesus live in Israel.
Most of these — about 78% — are Arab Christians who belong to Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and other historic churches.
There are an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 Evangelical Christian Arabs in Israel, many of them living in Nazareth, Haifa and the northern Galilee region.
Some 30,000 Messianic Jews — Jewish followers of Jesus as the Messiah and Lord — live in Israel, a number that has soared in recent decades.
Back in 1948, there were only 23 known Jewish followers of Jesus in Israel.
Today, there are some 300 Messianic congregations throughout the country.
Not all Jewish followers of Jesus celebrate Christmas. Most don’t, given that they were not raised with these traditions, and Christmas is not a specific biblical holiday found in the Old or New Testaments.
My family and I met Thursday night on a ridge overlooking the “little town of Bethlehem” with about 50 Israeli and international believers.
Given that church groups have not been allowed to meet for most of 2020, it was a very special time of prayer, fellowship, and singing classic Christmas carols, nestled between the pine trees and looking down into the very town where the Hebrew prophet Micah wrote that the Messiah would be born (see Micah 5 in the Hebrew Scriptures).
With the lockdown set to begin Sunday, there is widespread anger against the Israeli government, and deep anxiety throughout the country about how people will cope financially, socially and emotional for what feels like a never-ending public health crisis.
Many people I talk to don’t believe the lockdown will be limited to 14 days, but will last much longer.
We will see, but here are the official guidelines released by the government today.
1. Restrictions on going out from one's place of residence beyond 1,000 meters, apart from exceptions such as going out to be vaccinated, receive medical treatment or social work care, attend a demonstration or legal proceeding, do individual exercise (without the use of a vehicle), transferring a minor between separated parents, going to a permitted place of work or to permitted educational activity, or going out to attend a funeral, wedding or circumcision (subject to the restrictions on gatherings).
Fine for violation: 500 shekels.
2. A prohibition on leaving one's place of residence in order to be present in another person's place of residence.
3. Closure of public and commercial places except for essential stores: Food, hygiene, optical, pharmacies, and electric products and products that are necessary for essential home repairs.
4. Closure of guest units and b&b's, zoos, safari parks and nature reserves, national parks, national and commemorative sites, places for giving non-medical treatment including beauty and cosmetics treatment, places for giving complementary medical treatment, drive-in cinemas, malls, markets and museums. The option of opening an eating establishment for pick-up service is cancelled.
5. Places for athletic training may operate for professional athletes only.
6. Practical driving lessons are cancelled; organizing – or participating in – an organized hike is prohibited.
* Class as usual for ages 0-6, grades 1-4 and grades 11-12
* There will be no classes for grades 5-10
* Activity in open areas is prohibited. Practical classes in institutions for education or professional training for adults are prohibited as are classroom studies for grades 13-14, which are continuing education for drop-outs or youth-at-risk, and youth movement activities.
* The following may continue: Activity for special education pupils, drop-outs and youth-at-risk, boarding schools, classroom studies for new olim and access to in institutions for education or professional training for adults for on-line learning for students that require this.
* Trips are prohibited
* The ministerial coronavirus committee also approved the Health Ministry's draft decision to cancel the declaration of Eilat and the Dead Sea area as green islands, effective from Monday, 28 December 2020.
Joel C. Rosenberg is the editor-in-chief of ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and the President and CEO of Near East Media. A New York Times best-selling author, Middle East analyst, and Evangelical leader, he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and sons.