PA orders lockdowns of Hebron, Nablus amid record high infection numbers

With 108 new virus cases in West Bank Saturday, Ramallah calls emergency meeting; PM Shtayyeh says workers should halt movement between territories, Israel for next 2 weeks

Mask-clad Palestinian security forces stand at a checkpoint in the village of Tafouh, west of Hebron in the West Bank, on June 19, 2020, while enforcing a lockdown due to a surge of new cases of coronavirus (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
Mask-clad Palestinian security forces stand at a checkpoint in the village of Tafouh, west of Hebron in the West Bank, on June 19, 2020, while enforcing a lockdown due to a surge of new cases of coronavirus (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

At a press conference Saturday evening, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said the cities of Hebron and Nablus will be locked down in response to what he called “a dangerous increase in coronavirus infections” in the West Bank.

Speaking after Palestinian officials held an emergency meeting in Ramallah, Shtayyeh also called to halt worker movement between Israel and the West Bank for the next two weeks. It was not immediately clear if this was an order or merely a recommendation.

With 108 new virus cases confirmed across the West Bank Saturday — a record-high number — amid a trend of rising infections, Shtayyeh said no one and nothing will be let in or out of the Hebron governorate except for supplies and food. A five-day curfew is also to be put in place within the governorate, with only bakeries, pharmacies, supermarkets, and some factories to remain open.

Hebron, the West Bank’s largest governorate, has emerged as the center of the new wave of coronavirus infections in the West Bank.

Nablus will also be ordered into lockdown for two days to prevent the spread of the virus, Shtayyeh said. The city’s governor said people were to stay within 150 meters of their house.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh speaks during a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on June 9, 2020. (Abbas Momani/Pool Photo via AP)

All social gatherings were now banned throughout the West Bank, although some restaurants and coffee shops will remain open for now, Shtayyeh said.

Shtayyeh said the majority of new infections were due to exposure to people moving between the West Bank and Israel. Palestinian health officials said Friday night that Palestinian workers and Arab Israelis visiting relatives in the West Bank have been the source of most of the infections.

“I call on our people in the 1948 borders to avoid visiting any city, refugee camp, or village in the West Bank,” Shtayyeh said. “Additionally, I call on workers who are employed inside the 1948 areas to avoid daily movement between the West Bank and inside [Israel] for 14 days. They can temporarily reside at their place of work.”

According to the Kan public broadcaster, the number of active patients in the West Bank and Gaza now stands at 369, with 243 of those in and around Hebron over the past week.

The report also said the number of active cases in the West Bank had doubled over the past three days, having stood at 155 on Wednesday.

On Friday, major West Bank cities, including Hebron, announced limited lockdowns. PA authorities in Nablus and Hebron ordered the closure of public areas such as wedding halls and restaurants. The hard-hit villages of Halhoul and Tafouh, outside of Hebron, were issued shelter-in-place orders.

People gather outside a hospital of the Palestinian Red Crescent Society awaiting coronavirus testing in the village of Halhoul, north of Hebron in the West Bank, on June 19, 2020 (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Mosques and churches were closed again across the West Bank and Palestinians have been urged to pray at home. During the previous lockdown, public demands to pray in mosques caused friction between residents and security forces.

Shtayyeh previously said he is willing to order a return to a wide-scale lockdown in the event of a second wave.

The nature of the outbreak is different this time, Palestinian health authorities reported.

Unlike previous local outbreaks, which were mostly isolated in small villages, the current outbreak seems to be spreading all over the West Bank. The largest spikes have been reported in and around Nablus and Hebron, but Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other major population centers have also reported new infections.

Since restrictions were eased in late May after the Eid al-Fitr holiday, isolated cases have appeared in small villages in the West Bank. In each case, Palestinian health authorities were able to trace the source of the infection — usually, they reported, workers returning from Israel, or family members visiting relatives from the Israeli Negev — and contain the outbreak by ordering those exposed into quarantine.

Palestinian officials emphasized that many of the cases recorded in the second wave have unknown origins, raising fears of undetected community spread.

The new wave of infections finds the West Bank in a more delicate position than during the previous lockdown in April and May. The PA is now in the grip of a major financial crisis and has been unable to pay its employees — whose wages constitute around 20 percent of Palestinian GDP — for weeks.

Last week, Ramallah rejected the transfer of tax revenues it receives every month from Israel, which amounted to around 85% of its budget after the coronavirus crisis began in March. In April it received double the usual cash transfer from the Israeli government, according to Palestinian Authority financial reports.

The Palestinian Authority has moved to void understandings and end coordination with Israel over its plans to annex parts of the West Bank.

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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