Trapped tourists only being allowed to leave for airport

Amid Bethlehem lockdown, Palestinians report 9 more coronavirus cases

Latest infections bring total number of confirmed cases in the city to 16; PA health ministry says 120 people in West Bank, Gaza under home quarantine

A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask stands at the entrance to a hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 6, 2020, following a lockdown on the biblical city after the first Palestinian cases of the deadly coronavirus were discovered there. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)
A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask stands at the entrance to a hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 6, 2020, following a lockdown on the biblical city after the first Palestinian cases of the deadly coronavirus were discovered there. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

The Palestinian Authority on Friday announced another nine people in the West Bank city of Bethlehem have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, bringing the total number of cases there to 16.

All of the new cases were in Bethlehem, PA Health Minister Mai Kaileh was quoted saying by the official Wafa news agency. The city is under a lockdown imposed by Israel in coordination with the Palestinians.

The seven other confirmed cases of the virus were also in Bethlehem, where a group of Greek tourists stayed 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.

In Israel 21 people are infected with some 80,000 under quarantine.

All tourist buses to and from Bethlehem were banned until further notice, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.

A priest walks past the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, a day after spraying sanitizers as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, on March 6, 2020. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

An AFP journalist saw around 20 buses stuck at a checkpoint run by Israeli personnel at the entrance to the Palestinian city, which is around 10 kilometers (six miles) south of Jerusalem.

Witnesses said some tourists in Bethlehem were trying to bypass military controls in order to reach Jerusalem.

Israel radio quoted security officials as saying that trapped tourists were gradually being allowed to leave the city, only if they agreed to go to the airport, where they were to be flown home.

The streets in Bethlehem and Ramallah, where the Palestinian government is based, were near empty on Friday morning, with most shops closed, AFP journalists said.

Tourists wait in front of buses in Jerusalem initially headed to Bethlehem before being turned away by Israeli forces as emergency measures are being implemented to limit the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19, on March 6, 2020. (Ahmad GHARABLI/AFP)

The PA health ministry also said 120 people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were under home quarantine over concerns they may have the virus.

There have not yet been any confirmed cases of the virus in Gaza, which is ruled by the Hamas terror group.

The confirmation of the new cases comes after PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday 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.

Members of the Israeli security forces stand next to a checkpoint in Jerusalem on a road leading to Bethlehem that has been closed as part of measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus, on March 6, 2020. (Ahmad Gharabli/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.

There have been 21 confirmed cases of the virus in Israel, including the bus driver for the Greek tourists.

The hospital where he is being treated said Friday his condition has worsened and that he required artificial ventilation.

Worldwide, over 100,000 people have been infected and nearly 3,400 have been killed by the virus since it originated in central China in December.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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