Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to provide financial support for Israelis who lost their livelihoods due to lockdown after more 80,000 people protested his government’s economic response to the coronavirus over the weekend.
Tens of thousands of protesters gathered in Tel Aviv on Saturday to voice their frustration with Mr Netanyahu, who won praise for his early response to the outbreak but has come under criticism amid a severe fresh outbreak in cases.
Mr Netanyahu did not acknowledge the Tel Aviv protest ahead of his weekly cabinet meeting, but promised that financial help was on the way, starting with cash handouts of up to 7,500 shekels (£1,700) to the self-employed.
“This support, this grant, is not dependent on legislation and we have instructed that it be put into effect today. The button will be pressed and the money will reach accounts in the coming days,” he said.
Unemployment surged to a record 20 per cent in Israel after the economy was shut down to help tackle the coronavirus, while some business owners complained they did not receive enough financial support from the government and as a result could still go bankrupt.
According to Israeli media reports, at least six per cent of the Israeli population has caught coronavirus but the true proportion could be much higher.
The infection rate currently stands at around 1,000 cases per day, far higher than the previous peak of 700 in March. Israeli officials are said to be considering a second lockdown if the number of daily cases exceeds 2,000 this week.
It came as coronavirus infections surged across the Middle East and the economic damage caused by the pandemic began to become clear.
Iraq, Lebanon and Iran are also struggling with severe economic crises and record infection rates, with Iran reporting 221 deaths in just 24 hours, marking a new record death roll.
“The simplest solution is to close down all activities, (but) the next day, people would come out to protest the (resulting) chaos, hunger, hardship and pressure,” said Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran, stressing that lockdown could lead to protests.
In neighbouring Syria, at least two doctors in the opposition-held northwest have been infected, a monitoring group reported on Saturday, raising further fears that the virus could easily spread throughout war-torn Idlib.
“The anticipation is a catastrophic outcome… Don’t forget we are in a conflict zone. So doctors are already scarce and need to move between more than one place,” said Naser al-Muhawish, of the Early Warning and Alert Response Network.
Lebanon has seen its highest daily increase of coronavirus cases for the third day in a row, less than two weeks after the airport reopened from a three and a half month closure.
The government is pinning almost all of its hopes of getting out of its crippling economic crisis – which has seen the local currency lose over 80 per cent of its value in recent months – on summer tourist season, making further airport restrictions unlikely.
Hospitals are suffering, the head of the main coronavirus hospital said on Twitter. “Delayed payments, mounting costs, dwindling supplies and power shortages all pose serious challenges… we might be heading into a storm”.