Hamas closes Gaza mosques in attempt to stop spread of coronavirus

Government body says call to prayer will continue, with muezzins instructing people to pray at home; WHO official says the coastal enclave only has 50-60 ventilators for adults

Adam Rasgon is a former Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

A Palestinian man reads a copy of the Koran, Islam's holy book, in a mosque on the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City, on June 18, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)
A Palestinian man reads a copy of the Koran, Islam's holy book, in a mosque on the first day of the holy fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City, on June 18, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD HAMS)

The Hamas-run Awqaf and Religious Affairs Ministry decided on Tuesday to close all mosques in the Gaza Strip as authorities intensify efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the coastal enclave.

The first confirmed cases of the virus emerged in Gaza late last Saturday when two Palestinian preachers who recently traveled in Pakistan, tested positive for coronavirus.

The two were held at a quarantine facility before being diagnosed with the disease and were then transferred to a special field hospital at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

“It was decided to shut all mosques in Gaza temporarily and halt Friday and group prayers in them for two weeks starting at dawn on Wednesday,” the Awqaf Ministry said in statement.

Mosques are one of the primary places of gathering in cities and villages in Gaza.

The ministry, however, said that the call to prayer would continue, with muezzins instructing people to pray in their homes.

Since coronavirus emerged in China late in 2019, more than 398,000 confirmed cases have been reported, according to Johns Hopkins University. The virus has killed upwards of 17,450 people and spread to 169 countries, data collected by the university showed.

The Awqaf Ministry’s decision to close mosques comes after the Hamas-run Interior Ministry announced on Sunday that parties and gatherings of mourners would be banned and event halls, restaurants and cafes would be closed.

A Muslim man wearing a mask as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus gives a speech during Friday prayer at the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 20, 2020. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Gaza’s Health Ministry said 1367 Palestinians in the Strip were in home quarantine, while 1430 were isolated in special facilities around the territory.

Of those in the facilities, 29 came close to the pair infected with the virus, Ashraf al-Qidra, the ministry’s spokesman, said on Sunday.

In early March, Abdelnaser Soboh, the head of the World Health Organization’s sub-office in Gaza, said the territory’s health infrastructure would not be able to handle hundreds or thousands of cases of the virus.

“The health system in Gaza is already shaky and barely functioning. It cannot take on the burden of a large number of cases,” he told The Times of Israel, warning that such a scenario could contribute to its collapse.

Hospitals in Gaza frequently lack sufficient medications and medical equipment and often rely on backup generators to maintain a consistent flow of power.

Israel’s blockade on Gaza, which has been aided by Egypt, has significantly undermined the territory’s health sector.

Israeli officials maintain that the blockade, a series of restrictions on the movement of goods and people, is in place to prevent Hamas and other terror groups from importing weapons, or the means to make them, into Gaza.

Soboh said that the health institutions in Gaza carry a total of 2,500 beds and some 50-60 ventilators for adults.

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