Hamas-run Gaza government shuts Egypt crossing to travelers amid virus crisis
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Hamas-run Gaza government shuts Egypt crossing to travelers amid virus crisis

Official says only ’emergency situations’ will be allowed through Rafah; schools, universities, kindergartens to remain closed until end of March

Adam Rasgon is the Palestinian affairs reporter at The Times of Israel

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard at the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip on January 8, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand guard at the Rafah border crossing, in the southern Gaza Strip on January 8, 2019. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The Hamas-run government in the Gaza Strip announced on Saturday that the Rafah pedestrian crossing would be shut to travelers in both directions to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus in the densely populated coastal enclave. 

“It was decided to close the Gaza Strip’s crossings in both directions to travelers until further notice,” Mohammed Awad, the head of the Hamas-run government follow-up committee, told a press conference Saturday night. “Emergency situations will be excluded but within a narrow framework,” he said, without giving further details.

Awad was reading a statement from the government follow-up committee, while standing alongside senior Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya. 

The Rafah crossing is the sole pedestrian crossing between Egypt and Gaza. 

For most of the last decade, Egyptian authorities have imposed heavy limitations on the movement of people through Rafah, but they have recently allowed a few hundred Palestinians to travel to Egypt most days by way of it.

The statement also appeared to apply to the Erez crossing, the only pedestrian passageway between Israel and Gaza, which Israeli authorities had already closed until further notice last week with the exception of “humanitarian cases.”

When Israel operates Erez under more normal conditions, thousands of Palestinians with permits from Israeli authorities travel to and through its territory monthly, including some who go to Jordan and other countries.

But Israel maintains significant restrictions on who it allows to move through the crossing and under which circumstances, which it says aim to prevent terror groups from transporting weapons or the means to make them into Gaza.

Reading the statement, Awad also said that schools, universities and kindergartens would remain closed until the end of March.

Educational institutions in Gaza have been closed for just over a week.

Members of the Palestinian Ministry of Health in partnership with the World Health Organization (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. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP)

No cases of the virus have been confirmed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

The ministry said on Saturday that 2,667 persons were quarantined in their homes, while one other was being held in isolation at a special facility.

The number of COVID-19 cases worldwide has gone past 156,000 worldwide with more than 5,800 deaths, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.

Governments around the globe have taken significant measures to prevent its spread.

Last Sunday, Abdelnaser Soboh, the head of the WHO’s sub-office in Gaza, said the coastal enclave’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.

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

One of the symptoms experienced by many diagnosed with the virus has been difficulty breathing.

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