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Covid-19: Israel begins loosening restrictions with 40 percent of country vaccinated

Restaurants, bars and cafes are set to open to vaccinated 'green pass' holders
Attendees prepare to present their "green passes" (proof of being fully vaccinated against Covid-19) on arriving at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv on 5 March 2021 (AFP)

Israel began loosening Covid-19 lockdown restrictions with around 40 percent of country inoculated, opening restaurants, bars and cafes to vaccinated "green pass" holders.

"We are coming to life," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared on Sunday as he cut into a pastry at a Jerusalem cafe, according to a video posted on Facebook. 

Israel, which launched its vaccination campaign in December, has given the recommended two jabs of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to more than 3.7 million of its roughly nine million people. 

Nearly five million have received one shot. 

The country launched its green-pass programme last month, allowing controlled numbers of people with proof of full vaccination, or those who had recovered from Covid-19, to enter gyms, pools and other facilities. 

But Sunday's slate of re-openings has been highly anticipated, as it marks the restoration of services that touch the daily lives of many Israelis. 

Restaurants are now permitted to resume indoor dining at up to 75 percent capacity, with a cap of 100 people and with tables two metres apart. 

Green-pass holders can also now have a drink at a bar, but cannot yet strike up a chat with a stranger sitting on an adjacent stool, with rules requiring an empty seat between patrons unless they live together. 

Eating and drinking on terraces does not require a green pass. 

Large numbers of students, many of whom have been out of classrooms for months, will also start returning to school this week, while hotel event halls, sport venues and places of worship are re-opening to green-pass holders, with capacity limits in place.

Israelis stranded abroad amid a weeks-long airport closure will also be allowed to return home in increasing numbers this week, beginning with 1,000 arrivals permitted on Sunday.

'We'll be done'

Netanyahu, who faces a tough re-election battle in two weeks, has put Israel's robust vaccination drive at the centre of his campaign. 

While many countries have struggled to secure vaccine supply, Netanyahu's government has remained well-stocked thanks largely to an arrangement with Pfizer to share medical data on the product's impact. 

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The prime minister, in power since 2009, has said he wants Israel's entire over-16 population vaccinated by the end of this month, hoping the economy will be almost fully re-opened in time for the Passover holiday, which begins on 27 March.

"Just have to get a few hundred thousand more people... especially the over 50s, and we'll be done," Netanyahu said at the Jerusalem cafe, gesturing as if he were jabbing his arm with a shot.

While Israel's vaccination pace remains among the world's fastest, the Jewish state has faced widespread calls, including from the United Nations, to ensure inoculations of Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and those in Israeli-blockaded Gaza. 

Netanyahu's government has announced plans to vaccinate 100,000 Palestinians with permits to work in Israel.