Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Monday ordered an easing of some of the lockdown measures that have been applied in the West Bank as part of efforts to contain an outbreak of the coronavirus among the Palestinian population.
Abbas, speaking during a weekly cabinet meeting held via videoconference, did not specify what virus restrictions would be lifted, but ordered the government to ease some of the lockdown orders in the run-up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins Thursday evening.
Abbas said he recognized that many viewed the measures put in place as extreme, but said he had to choose between not implementing the restrictions and “losing our people.”
He praised the PA security forces for their enforcement of the lockdown, calling the improvised checkpoints established to enforce it “barriers of love.” He also cautioned that “unfortunately, there is no specific end date for this crisis.”
In the past month, the PA has taken a number of drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the West Bank, including heavily restricting freedom of movement.
PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said at the meeting that, following Abbas’s instructions, the government will announce what measures it will ease while striking a balance between public interest and health, the Ma’an news agency reported. Discussions have been ongoing in the past few days on the matter, he said.
Three hundred and fourteen Palestinians in the West Bank have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, along with another 15 in the Gaza Strip.
According to the PA’s official Wafa news agency, Abbas lamented that Israeli authorities have not been doing enough to address the issue of the tens of thousands of Palestinian workers in the Jewish state, who became the source of many of the confirmed coronavirus cases upon their return to the West Bank.
PA officials have even accused Israel of purposefully infecting Palestinians, a claim that Jerusalem has blasted as incitement.
Ramallah has asked that the workers be tested before being allowed into the West Bank, a request that has not received an official Israeli response.
Abbas on Monday clarified that there were ongoing efforts with Israeli authorities to allow Palestinian workers who have been residing in the Jewish state due to movement restrictions to return to the West Bank “in dignity.”
During the cabinet meeting Abbas also warned the US and Israeli governments against taking any steps to annex parts of the West Bank while Palestinians are distracted by the virus outbreak, saying that if Israel announces an annexation bid the PA will take “immediate measures,” Ma’an reported.
The extension of Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank was included in the Trump administration peace plan rolled out on January 28 in Washington, and has been embraced by Israel. Last month, senior White House officials were quoted by Israeli TV news as saying that they intended to green-light an annexation within months if the Palestinians do not return to the negotiating table, which they have refused to do after entirely dismissing the peace plan.
Last week Abbas held a round of phone conversations with Middle East leaders to urge them to oppose Israel’s possible annexation of parts of the West Bank, a senior Palestinian official reported at the time.