JERUSALEM — As one of the few countries to return to a complete lockdown amid a new surge in coronavirus infections, Israel is learning that freezing a nation in place is even more difficult the second time around.

Israel's experience could hold lessons for other governments looking to stem the pandemic's stubborn grip across the world.

After a nearly two-month national quarantine last spring — in which Israel’s 9 million residents largely complied with orders to stay home — autumn’s Lockdown II has proved to be far leakier and more contentious.

A restive public, doubtful that the restrictions are necessary, desperate to make a living and outraged at reports of politicians ignoring their own rules, has been less willing to bottle itself up since the second quarantine began Sept. 25.

Whole neighborhoods and towns have openly ignored rules against gatherings at synagogues, weddings and funerals, particularly in Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious communities. With workplaces and schools shut, parks are filled with families and exercise groups. Social media is rife with stories of citizens of all stripes blowing through the official 1,000-meter limit on trips from home, with many couching visits to friends or family as permitted grocery runs.

One video of police dragging a celebrant from an illegal wedding was shared and viewed widely Wednesday. Police said one officer received minor injuries when members of the wedding party threw bottles.

'A lot less community spirit'

“During the first lockdown, we saw so many people who were focused on tackling this pandemic as a united community,” said Brig. Gen. Sigal Bar-Tzvi, commander of community policing for the Israel Police. “This time around, though, people are worrying more about themselves and their own needs. There is a lot less community spirit.”

Faith in the government’s coronavirus response has collapsed, polls show.

Public health officials, many of whom opposed a blanket lockdown as overly blunt, worry that the spotty enforcement, government infighting and vacillating policy are feeding cynicism that will make it harder to fight the outbreak in the months to come.

“People have lost even more trust, and I’m afraid they will not be as cautious in the future,” said Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians. “There is no public health without the public.”

Small businesses, which have been decimated by the pandemic-driven economic collapse, have turned to guerrilla retailing, risking fines of about $1,500 to pass housewares and toys through semi-open front doors.

Along Emek Refaim, a popular Jerusalem shopping street, a dry cleaner, hardware store and flower shop were lights-on, doors-open despite the lockdown Sunday, which is a regular business day in Israel. “I’m open unless the police come by, and then I’m closed,” said Benny, the owner of a flower shop, who would give only his first name.

Elsewhere on the street, a shadowy trade was unfolding, where doors were closed but owners could be seen inside. At Hoshen Jewelry, owner Ziva Mizrahi had just let two customers in while she was doing some paperwork.

“If I’m here and they knock, I have to do it,” she said. She doesn’t want to violate the coronavirus restrictions, but business is down 90 percent since the lockdown began. “Otherwise, I don’t know how long I can hold out.”

One flower shop in Tel Aviv has stayed open by characterizing its herb plants as “fresh food,” an exception to the lockdown, according to a roundup of business dodges compiled by the newspaper Ha’aretz. At least one clothing store placed a few boxes of fruit for sale amid the garment racks for the same reason.

A group of owners burned tires and unsold inventory on a Tel Aviv street Thursday to protest forced closures amid an economic collapse that saw more than 37,000 businesses fail in the first half of the year.

Thousands of small shops, organizing via Facebook, opened their doors last Sunday in mass revolt. This Sunday, national retail chains announced plans to join them, with more than 6,000 stores expected to defy the regulations, according to the Association of Retail, Fashion and Café Chains.

Record cases

Israel successfully flattened the rate of infections after the first rise of the novel coronavirus in March. With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cheerleading efforts almost nightly on television, the government shut the airport and schools and told everyone largely to stay home.

But within weeks of reopening in May — too abruptly, critics said — infections began to mount. New cases reached a peak of more than 4,000 a day in September, the highest per capita rate in the world. Most of the rise has occurred in ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities. Covid-19 cases threatened to overwhelm some hospitals.

Video shows the inside of a coronavirus ward at a Tel Aviv hospital on Sept. 21, days after Israel went into a second nationwide lockdown on Sept. 18. (Reuters)

Other countries facing resurgent numbers have opted for targeted restrictions, including overnight curfews beginning in Paris and other French cities this weekend. Israel, in imposing another national lockdown on the eve of the Jewish high holiday season, immediately met with resistance.

People were more reluctant to comply this time, in part because they could see ultra-Orthodox communities, which have posted infection rates as much as double those of the general population, flatly rejecting the lockdown. While some rabbis beseeched followers not to host holiday gatherings, many refused to bar synagogue prayers, close yeshiva schools or disperse outdoor crowds.

Memories were also fresh of officials flouting the rules. Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin both hosted forbidden Passover gatherings during the first lockdown. Netanyahu’s wife, Sara, was caught having a hair stylist come to her house, and a former health minister attended weddings, both in violation of the law.

“A major part of the Israeli character is not to be a ‘freier,’ ” a Hebrew word loosely translated as “sucker,” said Dan Ben-David, a professor at Tel Aviv University and president of the Shoresh Institution for Socioeconomic Research, which is tracking the public response. “These guys are ignoring it, so why shouldn’t we?”

The decision to impose another full quarantine on the eve of the Jewish holiday season came amid a chaotic battle among health, education and finance ministers, all fighting for different rules and exceptions.

Netanyahu, who is facing corruption charges, was accused of pushing for a shutdown to end the growing mass protests against his rule that had become a weekly fixture outside the prime minister’s Jerusalem residence.

The result was a set of inconsistent regulations that left the public confused and skeptical.

“There is no logic to what Israel is doing; it’s like Kafka,” said Levine, of the physicians association. “Why can’t you swim in the sea? Why can’t you do takeaway from a restaurant? It erodes trust.”

As infection rates have drifted down toward target levels of 2,000 new cases a day, Israel began lifting some of the restrictions Sunday. Preschools were allowed to reopen in the face of objections from teachers unions, and people could travel freely and gather in groups of up to 10 indoors and 20 outside.

But “red zone” neighborhoods, with the highest infection rates, will remain under lockdown.

The country risks falling into a cycle of extremes, Levine said, with mass quarantines followed by spiking cases followed by mass quarantines, with no comprehensive strategy to keep infections low.

“If we don’t learn from our mistakes, Israel could be heading for a third lockdown,” he said.