46 new infections in West Bank raise concerns of potential second wave

Palestinian Authority has yet to see a severe spike in cases, but officials raise red flags, concerned about increase in cases within Israel

Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila announces a surge in cases in Hebron on June 17, 2020. (Courtesy: Wafa)
Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila announces a surge in cases in Hebron on June 17, 2020. (Courtesy: Wafa)

Forty-six new cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed in the West Bank in 24 hours, the highest single-day increase since restrictions were relaxed in late May, the Palestinian health ministry announced in a statement on Wednesday evening.

While the West Bank has so far been spared a second wave — with Ramallah watching the recent spike in confirmed cases in Israel with concern — that grace period may be coming to an end.

The Palestinian Authority is “preparing for an anticipated second wave of coronavirus in the event of a continued rise in cases,” PA health minister Mai al-Kaila announced on Tuesday. Al-Kaila convened an emergency meeting Wednesday night to discuss the surge in infections.

Thirty-three of the new cases were detected in Hebron and the surrounding villages. The treatment centers in Halhoul, outside of Hebron, are at capacity, and sick West Bank residents in the area are being transferred to Bethlehem for treatment, al-Kaila said.

The new infections bring the total number of confirmed cases in the West Bank to 741, according to PA health ministry statistics.

When the Palestinian Authority decided to loosen coronavirus restrictions in late May, nine of the West Bank’s 11 governorates were virus-free, and no new cases had been reported in the area for several days. ِSince then, around 100 new cases have been registered around the West Bank. Only four governorates are virus-free today, al-Kaila said on Tuesday.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh speaks to reporters during a press conference on April 13, 2020. (Wafa)

In light of concerns about the pandemic’s resurgence, as well as public dismay over the growing economic crisis in the West Bank, PA President Mahmoud Abbas made a relatively rare appearance in the streets of Ramallah on Monday. Palestinian media described it as an attempt to “encourage the citizenry to adhere to the precautionary measures and avert the spread of the virus.”

The persistence of coronavirus in the West Bank, however, is dwarfed by the sudden rise of cases within Israel. After a decline that saw the number of new cases each day dropping to low single digits, Israeli health authorities have recorded a spike in infections in recent weeks.

On Wednesday morning, the Health Ministry reported 299 new infections over the previous day, the largest rise in a 24-hour period in nearly two months.

At a cabinet meeting in Ramallah Tuesday afternoon, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said most of the new infections traced back to Palestinians returning from Israel.

“Most cases are from exposure to those infected in the 1948 areas [within Israel]… Next door, we see an increase in cases, which affects us both directly and indirectly,” he said.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers and traders move back and forth between the West Bank and Israel every day. While the crossings were closed for nearly two months due to the pandemic, the borders reopened in early June.

Palestinian Authority health officials had previously told The Times of Israel that workers returning from Israel would be obligated to enter a two-week quarantine. That does not seem to be the case, with Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories reporting daily movement back and forth through the checkpoints by workers on its Facebook page.

Schools all over Israel are widely seen as the primary vector in the country’s nascent second wave. Israeli schools were tentatively reopened in mid-May with limits on class sizes composed of “capsules” of students, a plan that sought to prevent exactly the kind of outbreak Israel has since witnessed.

By May 17, however, all restrictions were lifted. Subsequent outbreaks have forced tens of thousands of Israeli students and their families into quarantine all across the country.

Palestinian education ministry official Mohammad Awwad discusses reopening schools for matriculation exams in early June (Screenshot/Palestine TV)

West Bank educational institutions, by contrast, have largely remained closed. School buildings opened briefly in mid-June to allow limited numbers of students to take high school matriculation exams. But for all intents and purposes, the academic year in the West Bank seems to be over. None of the new cases are reported to have spread in matriculation exam halls.

As cases have appeared sporadically in villages across the West Bank, a familiar pattern has emerged in the PA response: An infection is detected, authorities isolate the case and those potentially exposed, and close public spaces in the town, including mosques, cafes and shops — and order the cancellation of weddings and other large gatherings until the extent of the outbreak can be determined.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ibrahim Melhem stressed in a statement earlier this month that the limited, temporary closures did not constitute “a return to restrictions,” which the PA would avoid “unless necessity demanded it.”

Asked to clarify what would require putting a general lockdown back into place, PA health official Osama al-Najjar told The Times of Israel in early June that community spread could be the deciding factor.

“Since we know the source of these infections, there is no reason to be concerned [of a wider outbreak],” he added. “But if we begin to see cases without a clear origin, that will be a serious cause for concern.”

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