Israel halts leisure, culture activities to stem virus

Israeli schools had already been closed since Thursday (AFP Photo/JACK GUEZ)

Jerusalem (AFP) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Saturday Israel would shut down eateries, shopping centres and gyms in a bid to halt the spread of novel coronavirus.

"Everything pertaining to leisure activities will be halted tomorrow morning," he said in a televised address.

A treasury official speaking after Netanyahu said that besides a shutdown of restaurants, shopping malls, cafes, hotels and gyms, a school closure announced Thursday would be expanded to include kindergartens.

Netanyahu also said he would ask the government's approval -- at a cabinet meeting to be held via video conference -- to allow "technologies used in the war against terror" to be used to track the movements of Israelis with coronavirus.

The new instructions also prohibit gatherings of over 10 people and advise people to stay at least two metres (six feet) away from one another.

The army meanwhile told combat soldiers set to return from a weekend at home to prepare to stay in their bases for a month.

Israel's health ministry announced late Saturday there were 193 COVID-19 cases in the country.

In the West Bank, where there were 38 COVID-19 cases, the Palestinian Authority told worshippers to pray at home rather than mosques and churches.

And Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the besieged Gaza Strip, took the unusual step of shutting its borders with Israel and Egypt as a precaution against the virus.

There are so far no documented COVID-19 cases in the enclave.

Netanyahu took advantage of his address to repeat his call to his political opponents to join him in a unity government.

"We need to stabilise Israel with a national emergency government," he said.

Three elections in less than a year and grinding negotiations among political factions have so far failed to produce a viable governing coalition.

Israeli parties are set to meet with Israel's President Reuven Rivlin on Sunday to name their preferred candidate to form a government.