How Hebron became the epicenter of the West Bank’s coronavirus outbreak
'Things are getting really bad,' Palestinian official says

How Hebron became the epicenter of the West Bank’s coronavirus outbreak

Logging 82% of the Palestinian territory’s COVID-19 cases, the city’s unique social conditions have generated as many infections as Israel’s three hardest-hit cities combined

Family members of an imam at a local mosque perform Friday prayers on the rooftop of their house, after the Palestinian Authority shut down mosques due to the coronavirus pandemic, in the West Bank city of Hebron, on July 3, 2020. (Hazem Bader/AFP)
Family members of an imam at a local mosque perform Friday prayers on the rooftop of their house, after the Palestinian Authority shut down mosques due to the coronavirus pandemic, in the West Bank city of Hebron, on July 3, 2020. (Hazem Bader/AFP)

On Saturday night, after the Palestinian Authority tallied a record 581 new cases, PA Health Minster Mai al-Kaila told Palestine TV that the level of coronavirus infections in the West Bank city of Hebron was “out of control.”

With 82 percent of the West Bank’s confirmed active coronavirus cases, Hebron has emerged as the epicenter of the West Bank’s second wave. Recording hundreds of infections per day for the past two weeks, the West Bank governorate has around as many active cases as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Bnei Brak — the three hardest-hit Israeli cities — combined.

“The situation in Hebron has entered a dangerous stage. There’s absolutely no control over the virus. Things are getting really bad,” a Palestinian health official told The Times of Israel.

Hebron is one of the Palestinian Authority’s main commercial hubs and, with a population of over 750,000, is by far the West Bank’s largest governorate. But size alone is not sufficient to explain the sheer number of infections in Hebron in recent days. Far from being restricted to a localized outbreak in one large city or small town, infections have hit municipalities all across the governorate.

There have been 4,647 total confirmed coronavirus infections in the West Bank, the vast majority of which surfaced in the past three weeks. Around 3,420 of the West Bank’s 4,138 active cases as of Tuesday night were in Hebron. There have also been 17 deaths, nearly all in the past two weeks, and most of them in Hebron.

Hebron only has 35 ventilators in total, according to the municipality’s numbers. With local hospitals at capacity, al-Kaila has said that sick Hebron residents are being transported across the West Bank to Bethlehem for treatment.

The runners up — Nablus and Bethlehem — lag far behind, registering only a couple hundred cases each, although the two governorates combined have a population that rivals Hebron’s.

In response to the rising infection rates, the PA imposed a five-day lockdown on Friday in all West Bank areas under its control to reduce the spread of the virus. Travel was banned except for emergencies, businesses were closed except for pharmacies and groceries, and citizens were told to stay home or face potential fines.

But despite those measures, cases continued to rise, forcing the PA to extend its coronavirus lockdown an additional five days on Tuesday night, Palestinian Authority government spokesperson Ibrahim Milhim said.

Mask-clad Palestinian security forces stand at a checkpoint in the village of Tafouh, west of Hebron in the West Bank, on June 19, 2020, while enforcing a lockdown due to a surge of new cases of coronavirus (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

One explanation offered by Palestinian health officials for the widespread cases in Hebron is its unique social composition. Many Hebron communities are composed of vast yet closely knit networks of clans, whose membership can run into the tens of thousands.

“Social relations in Hebron are different from [those in] other Palestinian cities. At a single wedding or funeral you might find 1,500 or even 2,000 people. This is because of the tribal nature of the area — the whole place is tribes,” the Palestinian health official said.

These massive social gatherings then become super-spreader events, such as a wedding in Tafouh, a small town outside of Hebron, where 52 Palestinians were infected with the virus.

On Monday, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called for the leaders of large clans, in Hebron and elsewhere, to intervene and adopt an “honor covenant” to prevent weddings and social gatherings in order to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Eighty-two percent of West Bank Palestinians with the virus contracted it at weddings and funerals in which participants violated social distancing guidelines, he said.

Palestinian Authority officials have also consistently blamed the movement of Palestinians between Israel and the West Bank as a primary source of infections. Shtayyeh demanded that Israel seal all crossings between the West Bank and Israel to prevent the further spread of the virus. However, Israel had already announced last month that crossings would close to Palestinian workers at the end of the month.

About half of the approximately 100,000 Palestinian workers who work in Israel hail from Hebron. But their extensive family ties don’t end at the Green Line, Hebron governor Jabarin al-Bakri said.

“We have 50,000 Palestinian workers who regularly go inside [Israel], and 270,000 Negev residents who come here often, and many residents of Jerusalem have family members here. There’s a lot of mixing with Palestinians who live inside [Israel],” al-Bakri told Palestine TV last month.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh removes his protective mask during a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on June 9, 2020. (Abbas Momani/Pool Photo via AP)

Shtayyeh lamented what he said was the PA’s inability to limit such movement, which he said was a key driver of the virus. Palestinian Authority health officials have said the first infections in the West Bank’s second wave could be traced back to Palestinians who moved between Israel and the West Bank.

“The most important factor in the rise of the virus is that we do not control our points of entry and our borders. Our land has been shredded up, like in Hebron… where we control one part and do not control the other part,” Shtayyeh said.

The city of Hebron itself also operates within a unique political situation unmatched by any other Palestinian city. Under the 1997 Hebron Protocol, signed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the late Palestine Liberation Organization chairman Yasser Arafat, the city is divided between Israeli and Palestinian control. Area H1, about 80% of the city, is administered by the Palestinian Authority, while 20% of the city lies in Israeli-controlled Area H2.

While the Palestinian Authority has declared a lockdown in all West Bank areas under its control, Israel has yet to order a return to lockdown. As such, the new restrictions leveled by the Palestinian Authority only apply to H1.

Crowds gathered to celebrate weddings on both sides of the city this weekend despite the lockdown, but the situation was worse in H2, according to Palestinian media.

“In H2 there is less observance [of the lockdown] because the Palestinian security forces are not there to enforce it. In fact, there isn’t really adherence to social distancing there,” the Palestinian health official noted to The Times of Israel.

Mask-clad Israeli security forces stand guard near the West Bank city of Hebron on June 14, 2020. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The official said there was still movement between the two parts of the city despite the lockdown, although he said most cases so far did not trace back to movement between the two areas.

“H1 and H2 are one city, and there’s movement between them. There is no real division,” he said.

Palestinian police spokesperson Luay Irzeiqat told The Times of Israel that police were “working to limit movement” in Hebron and in the West Bank as a whole. Palestinians living in Israeli-controlled H2 would only be allowed to enter the rest of Hebron for emergencies or on official business, Irzeiqat said.

Bilal, a Hebron resident, told The Times of Israel that Palestinians in Hebron have begun adhering to social distancing more as the situation has grown more dire. As the number of cases — and deaths — rose dramatically, the threat of the virus became impossible to ignore, he said.

“Since the second wave and the rise in cases, people are starting to become afraid of the virus, and they’re beginning to take the safety guidelines more seriously,” Bilal said.

Raed Zaarir, who lives in a small village outside of Hebron, agreed that people were finally taking the virus seriously. His village of Samu had been closed off, he said, with no one entering or exiting except when absolutely necessary; people who had previously scorned wearing a mask were following the rules.

“This is the first time I’m seeing adherence to the guidelines,” Zaarir said. “People had an attitude that ‘whatever God wills, will happen’…as the numbers rose, though, people began to realize that there’s no reason that anyone should infect their family members.”

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