Finally, Gaza has something to brag about: No virus cases… apparently

Rumors swirl, as ever, that Hamas is hiding a darker truth, but officially the Strip is COVID-19-free, and the West Bank is in pretty good shape too

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

A Palestinian man wearing a mask as a means of protection against the coronavirus COVID-19, sits on the seashore in Gaza City on March 13, 2020. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)
A Palestinian man wearing a mask as a means of protection against the coronavirus COVID-19, sits on the seashore in Gaza City on March 13, 2020. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

For years, the residents of the Gaza Strip have had nothing to brag about, given the poverty, the conflict and the overcrowding. But finally a reason has emerged: As of this writing there is not a single registered case of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip. In contrast to the West Bank, Israel and every country in the Middle East, Gaza is formally virus-free.

Close to the Rafah border crossing, a clinic-cum-mini hospital has been set up where people crossing into the Strip from Egypt are checked. Those found to have high temperatures are given tests. And these are sent to Israel for evaluation. Again, as of this writing, the results of all these tests, received from Israel, have been negative.

Nonetheless, Gaza, as ever, is swirling with rumors. According to A., a resident of Gaza City, nobody can be certain that there is no COVID-19 in Gaza. “It’s not entirely clear. There are rumors of coronavirus infection among people who have come back from the Hajj or from Egypt.

“And to date, the World Health Organization has only sent 200 virus check kits to Gaza,” said A. “You hear some people talking about other people who apparently have symptoms, but nobody really knows. As ever, it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t.”

Members of the Palestinian Ministry of Health in partnership with the World Health Organisation (WHO), set up outdoor tents for the preliminary medical examination of suspected coronavirus patients at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip on March 12, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)

“Plenty of us suspect that the Hamas government is doing its best to suppress information in order to be able to claim that ‘Gaza is winning’. We don’t know if this is a smokescreen, intended to obscure a grave reality. Or maybe the blockade is working,” A. went on wryly. “When it comes to the virus, we don’t know. Maybe Gaza is one of the safest places in the world, at least in terms of this virus. I’m sure we’ll find out soon.”

The situation in the West Bank is different, but not radically so. Some three dozen cases of coronavirus infection have been registered to date, all but one of them among residents of the Bethlehem area. The other case is a Tulkarm resident who apparently was infected while working in Israel. Remarkably, there are no recorded cases of the virus in other areas — from the north of the West Bank (Jenin, Nablus and so on) through to the south in the Hebron area.

A curfew was imposed on Bethlehem after the first cases of the virus were reported among a group of tourists from Greece who had visited the city, including the Christian holy places. Some 3,500 residents of Bethlehem were sent to 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)

The Palestinian Authority government, under Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, has imposed a series of measures designed to counter the spread of infection, including barring entry to the Bethlehem area, closing down cafés where nargilas are smoked, and imposing restrictions on communal prayer at the mosques.

Prayer times have been limited to 15 minutes. Worshippers have been told not to drink from communal taps at the mosques. And the Ministry of Religious Affairs (Waqf) has told West Bankers to come to the mosques with their own prayer mats. People have also been told not to sleep in the mosques.

As of this writing then, things seem to be under control in both Gaza and the West Bank, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas has praised the actions of the various district governors with whom he met this week. According to Abbas, the Palestinians can beat this virus, just as they have overcome a multitude of other challenges.

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