Defense Ministry extends Gaza, Bethlehem closures due to virus outbreak

Defense Ministry extends Gaza, Bethlehem closures due to virus outbreak

Bennett allows Palestinian workers aged under 50 to continue entering Israel while barring entry of all others; Israelis to be barred from entering West Bank Areas A and B

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

Passengers at the Erez border crossing that is used by Gazans coming for medical treatment in Israel. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
Passengers at the Erez border crossing that is used by Gazans coming for medical treatment in Israel. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

The Defense Ministry announced on Wednesday that it would be extending closures imposed over the Gaza Strip and the West Bank city of Bethlehem as it seeks to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

Israel shuttered its crossings into Gaza on Sunday as it traditionally does for the Purim holiday. The four-day scheduled closure was a day longer than normal for the festival, which began on Monday evening in most of the country. A military spokesperson said this was not due to concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus or any other issue, but was decided out of practical considerations.

The Wednesday Defense Ministry statement said the Gaza closure would be extended until sundown on Saturday, while no final date was given for the Bethlehem shutdown. The southern West Bank city was completely closed off last week in coordination with the Palestinian Authority, with all entrances and to the area shut down to contain an outbreak there.

The epicenter of the outbreak is the Angel hotel, located in Beit Jala, a town on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where a group of Greek tourists who were later found to have contracted the virus had stayed. PA government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem said on Tuesday that 29 people in the West Bank had now been diagnosed with the virus, with all but one case in Bethlehem.

A priest walks in the Church of the Nativity compound in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 8, 2020, after it came under lockdown two days ago as an emergency measure to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

On Sunday, Israel’s Health Ministry said people who had been to the “Bethlehem area” in the past two weeks must enter a 14-day home quarantine.

Earlier this week Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh declared that no one would be allowed to leave or enter Bethlehem except in the case of emergencies. Videos posted on social media appeared to show that Bethlehem has essentially turned into a ghost town.

In addition, the Defense Ministry also announced that entry into Israel for Palestinians from the West Bank would only be granted to workers below the age of 50. Israelis will also be barred from entering Areas A and B, the ministry added, though it was not immediately clear the significance of the directive as those are areas under Palestinian civilian control, according to the 1994 Oslo Accords, where Israelis are not typically allowed to reside regardless.

“It should be emphasized that these are measures aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus while minimizing damage to the economy as much as possible,” the Defense Ministry said, adding it was working to coordinate its efforts with the Palestinian Authority.

The Allenby Crossing, the main route from the Palestinian West Bank into neighboring Jordan, is pictured on March 10, 2020 after it was partially closed over coronavirus fear. (Abbas Momani/AFP)

Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, announced Tuesday that the Allenby border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan would be shut to travelers in both directions.

COGAT clarified that “local residents,” an apparent reference to Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem who are currently in Jordan, would be permitted to return to their homes, if they coordinate with authorities.

On Sunday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said he was seriously considering completely shutting off all Palestinian Authority-governed portions of the West Bank as part of Israel’s ongoing effort to control the spread of the coronavirus, though evidently he has decided against it.

Shortly after Palestinian health authorities confirmed the first cases of coronavirus in the West Bank last Thursday, PA President Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency for 30 days.

Shtayyeh has since announced the closure of schools and universities, the cancellation of all hotel reservations and conferences, the shuttering of tourist and religious sites, the banning of public gatherings and protests, and other measures.

Separately Wednesday, Israel announced that it would be limiting public events in closed areas to 100 people as part of increasingly strict measures to curb the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.

People wear face masks arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

The ban includes synagogue prayer and weddings, the Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov elaborated. Schools are staying open for now, but officials may require institutes of higher education to teach remotely.

The new restrictions were announced as the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic.

There have so far been 97 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Israel, many of them contracted by travelers who recently returned from abroad. There were 27 new confirmed cases in the country Wednesday.

Worldwide, there have been over 118,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and nearly 4,300 deaths.

Prior to the new restrictions, public gatherings in Israel had been limited to 2,000 people, including for religious events.

To curb the spread of the virus in the country, all Israelis returning from overseas are required to quarantine at home for 14 days. Non-Israeli nationals will be allowed into the country until Thursday at 8 p.m., but after that they will be barred entry unless they can demonstrate an ability to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Adam Rasgon and Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report

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