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Israel imposes second coronavirus lockdown during high holidays

TEL AVIV, Sept 18 (Reuters) - Israel will enter a second nationwide lockdown on Friday at the onset of the Jewish high-holiday season, forcing residents to stay mostly at home amid a resurgence in new coronavirus cases.

The country’s initial lockdown was imposed in late March and eased in May as new cases tapered off, reaching lows in the single digits.

But Israeli leaders now acknowledge they lifted restrictions too soon in the hope of avoiding further economic damage by reopening the private sector. They had also permitted mass gatherings, which contributed in pushing new cases to daily highs of over 5,000.

The new lockdown, which is due to begin at 2 p.m. (1100 GMT) and will last three weeks, coincides with the start of the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, traditionally a time for large family gatherings and group prayer.

Under the new rules, Israelis must stay within 500 metres (546 yards) of home, with exceptions for activities such as commuting to work, shopping for essentials and walking outdoors for exercise. Workplaces will operate on a limited basis.

Social distancing and limits on the number of worshippers will go into effect at synagogues, usually packed for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement that begins at sunset on Sept 27.

Since the outbreak began, 1,169 people have died in Israel, a country of 9 million.

Health officials patchy compliance with mandatory mask-wearing, poor social distancing in close-quarter Arab and ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities and in schools for fuelling a second wave of cases.

Many Israelis have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose cabinet ministers have openly quarrelled about how to deal with the pandemic, of having been slow to respond to the new surge, and thousands have gathered for weekly protests outside his official residence in Jerusalem.

Reporting by Rami Ayyub Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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