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Israel eases restrictions as vaccination rates climb

by The Associated Press | March 8, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.
Women sit in a caffe-bar overlooking the Mediterranean Sea as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

JERUSALEM -- Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as it removed many of its remaining coronavirus lockdown restrictions, lifted by the success of its vaccination campaign.

The easing of restrictions comes after months of government-imposed shutdowns and less than three weeks before the country's fourth set of parliamentary elections in two years. Israel, a world leader in vaccinations per capita, has fully immunized nearly 40% of its population in just over two months.

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Bars and restaurants, event halls, sporting events, hotels and all primary and secondary schools that had been closed for months were permitted to reopen Sunday. Some restrictions remained on crowd sizes, and certain places were open to the vaccinated only.

"We're very happy that this day came. We've been preparing for this day for a very long time," said Assaf Obsfeld, a Jerusalem coffee shop owner who was checking customers to ensure they had been vaccinated.

"It's a stressful situation because we really don't know how to handle everybody," he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government approved the easing of limitations Saturday night, including the reopening of the main international airport to a limited number of incoming passengers each day.

Netanyahu is campaigning for reelection as Israel's coronavirus vaccine champion at the same time that he is on trial on corruption charges.

Israel has sped ahead with its immunization campaign. More than 52% of its population of 9.3 million has received one dose and almost 40% has gotten two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

Nearly 90% of the country's over-50 population has either been vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus. Decision-makers have concluded it is safe enough to reopen more parts of the economy.

Netanyahu appears to be banking that some semblance of normalcy will lift his reelection prospects. Opinion polls show him locked in a race against a field of challengers that is too close to call.

While vaccination rates continue to steadily rise and the number of serious cases of covid-19 drops, Israel's unemployment rate remains high. As of January, 18.4% of the workforce was jobless because of the pandemic, according to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics.

At the same time that it has deployed the vaccine to its own citizens, Israel has provided few doses for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a move that has underscored global disparities. It has faced criticism for not sharing significant quantities of its stockpiles.

On Friday, Israel postponed plans to vaccinate Palestinians who work in the country and its West Bank settlements until further notice. Officials said the program would begin today.

Israeli officials have said the country's priority is vaccinating its own population first, while the Palestinian Authority has said it would fend for itself in obtaining vaccines from the World Health Organization-led partnership with humanitarian organizations, known as COVAX.

But human-rights groups and many Palestinians say Israel is an occupying power responsible for the well-being of the Palestinians. Israel says that under interim peace accords reached in the 1990s, it does not have any such obligation.

Israeli musician Ivri Lider performs in front of audience, where all guests were required to show "green passport" proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or full recovery from the virus at a soccer stadium in Tel Aviv, Friday, March. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israeli musician Ivri Lider performs in front of audience, where all guests were required to show "green passport" proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or full recovery from the virus at a soccer stadium in Tel Aviv, Friday, March. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
People eat in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
People eat in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
People eat in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
People eat in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Israeli musician Ivri Lider perform in front of audience wearing protective face masks during a performance where all guests were required to show "green passport" proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or full recovery from the virus at a soccer stadium in Tel Aviv, Friday, March. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israeli musician Ivri Lider perform in front of audience wearing protective face masks during a performance where all guests were required to show "green passport" proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or full recovery from the virus at a soccer stadium in Tel Aviv, Friday, March. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Audience members wearing protective face masks take a selfie during a performance of Israeli musician Ivri Lider, where all guests were required to show "green passport" proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or full recovery from the virus at a soccer stadium in Tel Aviv, Friday, March. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Audience members wearing protective face masks take a selfie during a performance of Israeli musician Ivri Lider, where all guests were required to show "green passport" proof of receiving a COVID-19 vaccination or full recovery from the virus at a soccer stadium in Tel Aviv, Friday, March. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
People eat in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
People eat in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Women sit in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. The sign says you'r invited for amazing food and cold beer. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Women sit in a restaurant as restrictions are eased following months of government-imposed shutdowns, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, March 7, 2021. Israel reopened most of its economy Sunday as part of its final phase of lifting coronavirus lockdown restrictions, some of them in place since September. The sign says you'r invited for amazing food and cold beer. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
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