As infection rises among Arab Israelis, Defense Ministry bans entry to PA areas

Israeli health officials have blamed Arab Israelis entering Palestinian Authority areas for spread of contagion; nearly 40% of active infections in Israel now in Arab sector

Illustrative: Border Police officers and an IDF soldier at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem on April 14, 2020, ahead of the start of a nationwide closure for the Passover holiday. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Illustrative: Border Police officers and an IDF soldier at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem on April 14, 2020, ahead of the start of a nationwide closure for the Passover holiday. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Defense Ministry has issued an order banning Israelis from visiting West Bank Palestinian areas in an attempt to slow the skyrocketing rate of infection among Arab Israelis.

The order, which takes effect on Thursday morning, is set to last a month. It will apply to areas defined as Area B under the Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. According to the 1995 agreement, Israel is responsible for security in Area B while the PA is in charge of civilian administration.

While the order bans all Israelis from entering Area B, it was widely seen as an attempt to curb visits by Arab Israelis to all Palestinian areas. Israelis are nominally banned from entering Area A, which is under Palestinian civilian and security control, but many Arab Israelis routinely enter Area A to attend university or even go shopping.

Senior Israeli health officials have said that visits by Arab Israelis to PA areas — where there is little social distancing or enforcement of health regulations —  bear part of the blame for the recent rise in infections in the Arab Israeli community.

“We’re talking about tens of thousands of ِArab Israeli citizens entering PA zones every week,” deputy coronavirus czar Ayman Seif told Hala News in early November.

Seif also blamed travel abroad and the return of mass weddings for the recent rise in infections among Arab Israelis. Some have even reportedly been holding nuptials in Palestinian areas.

“I just can’t understand it,” Seif said, adding that “everyone who enters PA areas, or travels to Turkey, is hurting himself and the people close to him.”

Other health experts have been skeptical of the official line, however. Dr. Zahi Saeed, who advises the Clalit health organization on Arab affairs, told The Times of Israel in late October that he did not believe that traveling to Palestinian areas was a major cause of viral spread, calling it “nonsense.”

“That isn’t a good enough explanation for infection. I’ve sat with a hundred infected patients…if people go and follow the guidelines and wear masks and wash hands, are careful while shopping and maintain distance, it’s not a concern. If we’re not careful, that’s when we get infected. We shouldn’t blame others for it,” Saeed said.

The tide of infections among Arab Israelis during the second wave of coronavirus has oscillated from peak to valley to peak. In September, around 30 percent of infections were in the Arab sector, even though Arab Israelis constituted around 20% of Israel’s population.

The second national lockdown, combined with hard work by local authorities tracking and tracing the disease, pushed the rate of infection down until Arab Israelis accounted for just 7% of the country’s active cases in early October.

Since that success, however, the number of infections has yet again increased dramatically, even as testing across the country has fallen. Around 38 percent of all coronavirus infections currently are in Arab cities and towns, the Arab Emergency Commission reported on Monday.

Palestinian medical teams at the hospital in the West Bank town of Dura near Hebron, seen during work in the coronavirus ward, on July 9, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/FLASH90)

While touring the Arab Israeli city of Kafr Kara on Monday, outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu warned that the government would move to close crossings to the West Bank if the rise in infections persisted.

“We will consider closing the crossings if there is no other solution,” Gamzu said. “[Weddings] cannot go forward without there being more funerals.”

After lobbying by Joint List chief Ayman Odeh, an exception was carved out for Arab Israeli students enrolled in Palestinian West Bank universities. According to a post on Odeh’s Facebook page, students will be asked for their university identity cards at crossings to the West Bank.

In July, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on Israel to close its borders and prevent its citizens from entering PA areas. He also implored Arab Israelis to refrain from visiting their relatives across the Green Line, saying that it was contributing to a resurgent wave of coronavirus. Shtayyeh acknowledged, however, that the PA was not in control of the matter.

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

“The most important factor in the rise of the virus is that we do not control our points of entry and our borders,” Shtayyeh said at the time.

Palestinian officials have also blamed the regular movement of Palestinian workers back and forth across the Green Line for the high caseload in the West Bank.

Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians closed crossings to Palestinian workers at several junctures since the pandemic began in March in an attempt to flatten the curve in both Israel and in the Palestinian territories.

Despite concern about rising rates of infection in Palestinian areas, however, the Israeli government has not yet indicated a change in the current policy, and Palestinian workers continue to enter and leave Israel on a daily basis. Around 100,000 West Bank Palestinians are legally authorized to work inside Israel and the settlements, according to Israeli rights group Kav LaOved.

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