15 Americans under quarantine at Bethlehem hotel linked to virus cases

Israeli bus driver infected after ferrying Greek tourists and stayed at hotel still in serious condition; mosques, churches in Ramallah sanitized as part of precautionary measures

Palestinian men, one of them wearing a protective mask, walk out of the Angel Hotel hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 6, 2020. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)
Palestinian men, one of them wearing a protective mask, walk out of the Angel Hotel hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 6, 2020. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

The Palestinian Authority on Saturday said 15 American tourists at a hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem were put under quarantine as part of measures to stem the spread of coronavirus.

PA spokesman Ibrahim Melhem said the Americans were at the Angel Hotel, where other cases of the virus have been linked.

“They are still there and they are being dealt with according to quarantine regulations like all the others who are there,” he told Reuters.

The US Embassy in Jerusalem told the news agency it was aware of the reports but would not comment further due to privacy concerns.

There have been 16 confirmed cases of the virus in Bethlehem, which Israel has imposed a lockdown on in coordination with the Palestinians.

Palestinian security forces block the entrance to the Angel Hotel in the the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The first cases in Bethlehem were reported after a group of Greek tourists stayed in the West Bank city while visiting Israel and the Palestinian territories in late February. The tourists later tested positive for the virus after returning to Greece, while their bus driver, a resident of East Jerusalem, is in critical condition at an Israeli hospital after being diagnosed with COVID-19.

Baruch Padeh Medical Center in Tiberias, where the driver was being hospitalized, said Saturday he remained in serious but stable condition.

Meanwhile Israeli officials said that over the weekend dozens of tourist groups had coordinated their departure from Palestinian territory through Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport amid the discovery of numerous infections in the West Bank.

They said the departures were aided by Israel’s police, Foreign Ministry, Health Ministry and security forces.

On Saturday PA officials said the number of patients diagnosed with the virus had risen to 19. In Israel there have been 21 confirmed cases of the virus with another 80,000 people under home quarantine.

Also Saturday, mosques and churches in Ramallah were sterilized to help prevent the virus from spreading there.

According to the official Wafa news agency, the homes of elderly Ramallah residents, municipal buildings and trash containers will also be sterilized.

There have been no reported infections in Ramallah.

An elderly man wearing a protective masks reads from the Quran while seated in a mosque being sterilized by Palestinian Authority health workers in the West Bank city of Ramallah to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, March 7, 2020. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

After the first cases in the West Bank were confirmed Thursday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas issued a presidential decree declaring a state of emergency in all Palestinian-controlled territory for 30 days beginning at 8 a.m. Friday, authorizing officials to take “all necessary measures to confront the risks resulting from the coronavirus and to protect public health.”

Israel, which controls the West Bank, placed Bethlehem on lockdown, banning Israelis and Palestinians from entering or leaving the storied city.

Palestinians ordered the shuttering of the Church of the Nativity and other places of worship in Bethlehem for two weeks, and banned all tourists from the West Bank for an unspecified amount of time.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh later said that all tourism and religious sites across the West Bank under the PA’s control would be closed.

In a televised statement Thursday evening, Shtayyeh said the state of emergency entailed a near-total lockdown of Palestinian society.

All educational institutions, from kindergartens to universities and research institutions, would be closed, though government agencies would remain open.

Movement between different PA governorates and cities would be limited to necessary traffic, especially travel to and from Bethlehem, he said.

Mass gatherings, celebrations, protests and strikes were banned, and measures were put in place to limit stockpiling and price gouging.

Israeli officials said they were working closely with their Palestinian counterparts to contain the virus.

A Palestinian barber wearing a mask as a protective measure against the cornonavirus shaves a patron at his shop in the West Bank city of Hebron on March 6, 2020. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

Israeli and Palestinian health officials held a meeting on Thursday to coordinate their responses, and shared information on the virus’s spread according to Israeli daily Haaretz.

COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian matters, said it had delivered 250 test kits to the Palestinians and was coordinating joint training sessions for Israeli and Palestinian medical workers.

Besides those in Bethlehem, the Greek tour group visited several other holy sites throughout Israel and the West Bank, according to Israel’s Health Ministry, including the cliffside Mar Saba monastery near the Dead Sea, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, among others.

Worldwide, over 100,000 people have been infected and nearly 3,500 have been killed by the virus since it originated in central China in December.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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