Hamas officials warn that Gaza could return to lockdown as cases rise sharply

Terror group’s health ministry warns of ‘the worst stage’ in virus as number of active cases in the coastal enclave reaches record high

A Palestinian Hamas policeman wears a face mask as he guards in a street in Gaza City during a 48 hour lockdown imposed following the discovery of the first coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip on August 25, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian Hamas policeman wears a face mask as he guards in a street in Gaza City during a 48 hour lockdown imposed following the discovery of the first coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip on August 25, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

With coronavirus infections at an all-time high, Hamas officials warned on Monday that the Gaza Strip could see a return to total lockdown should the rate of coronavirus transmission continue to rise.

“If the rate of infection continues to rise as it has thus far, the health system’s capacity to absorb pressure will dissipate, and that will mean a progressive return to total lockdown,” the Hamas-run health ministry said in a statement.

The Gaza Strip has reached a high of 3,014 total active coronavirus cases, well over what officials in the terror group have said they consider to be the health system’s normal capacity, according to Health Ministry. Around 15,000 Gazans are in quarantine, the ministry reported on Monday.

After 14 years of a blockade by both Israel and Egypt, in addition to wars between Israel and Hamas, Gaza’s health care system is poorly equipped to deal with a full-fledged outbreak. It has about 500 hospital beds and 87 ventilators for its entire population of nearly 2 million, according to Hamas statistics.

Hamas health authorities said Sunday that the coastal enclave had confirmed 270 new coronavirus cases in the previous 24 hours. Around 11 percent of coronavirus tests came back positive, indicating that further infections are likely spreading undetected.

Around 20% of the cases are moderate to critical, according to Hamas health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra, who called the trend “concerning.”

Palestinian Hamas police officers wear protective suits as they take part in a simulation of possible coronavirus infections in Gaza City, Saturday, July 18, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Three weeks ago, Hamas launched a “traffic light plan” and began classifying Gaza neighborhoods as red or green depending on their rate of coronavirus infection. The terror group’s interior ministry began applying restrictions to a few neighborhoods in the northern Gaza Strip in an attempt to stop the spread of infection, seemingly without success.

“Red zones have spread throughout the provinces of the Gaza Strip — we now have 14 out of 94 neighborhoods classified as red… meaning that we will have to take methods to tighten restrictions on movement in those areas,” senior health ministry official Majdi Dahir said in a press conference in Gaza City on Monday.

Hamas officials set 2,000 active cases and 250 cases per day as the upper limit for control over the virus when new cases began appearing in August outside designated quarantine centers. They warned that any infections beyond that could pose a serious threat to Gaza’s ailing health care system.

“If the number of active cases is above 2,000, more than 250 new cases per day, we’ll deal with that situation, but we will not be able to effectively control matters,” Hamas deputy health minister Yusuf Abu Rish warned in late August.

After Gaza’s first coronavirus outbreak in late August led to fears of a wider outbreak, a harsh lockdown seemed to successfully contain the virus.

A Palestinian health worker sprays disinfectant on the hands of a woman entering the Maghazi refugee camp as a precaution against the coronavirus, in the central Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

The lockdown lasted for more than a month. The numbers climbed steadily before peaking at around 1,800 active cases. By September 30, more than a month into the outbreak, the Gaza Strip had only around 1,332 active cases and falling.

But health authorities said that they had limited means to track the outbreak, and officials constantly stressed a lack of tests and medical capacity. While there are nearly 2 million Gazans living in dense, cramped conditions across the coastal enclave, the Hamas-run Health Ministry conducts only around 2,000 tests a day. For comparison, neighboring Israel, with a population of 8.6 million, was testing as many as 70,000 per day at the peak of the second wave and says it has the capacity to test 100,000.

Even as cases began to trickle in again, health officials continued to loosen restrictions in an attempt to allow some return to normal life, reopening markets, then mosques, and even some schools.

Finally, as the number of active infections passed 2,000, Hamas health officials announced in late October that a number of areas in the Gaza Strip would be locked down again.

Beit Hanoun, a city of around 33,000 people, was to be closed off by security forces, with no one allowed to enter or exit, along with two other “red” areas with high infection rates, the Interior Ministry announced.

Hamas officials blame a lack of adherence to health guidelines. Since the beginning of the outbreak, large gatherings — often funerals — have been reported in neighborhoods of the Strip.

But the top Hamas leadership has also been spotted breaking the rules. In late October, Interior Ministry spokesman Iyad al-Bozm warned Gazans not to attend any kinds of gatherings, including mourning tents. But in images widely publicized in Gaza media around the same time, senior Hamas officials could be seen gathering in a crowded mourning tent following the death of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Zahar’s mother.

Hamas authorities said on Monday that they expect the number to increase substantially in the near future. Given the critical economic situation in the impoverished coastal enclave — nearly 80% of the population is dependent on international assistance and lives without regular access or water and electricity — a return to lockdown could be devastating.

“We are entering what could be the worst stage in the coming days,” the Health Ministry warned in a statement.

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