Israel may place general closure on West Bank to keep virus at bay

Defense minister visits IDF exercise simulating widespread outbreak of coronavirus; says there’s not yet a pandemic, seeming to contradict PM

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett visits an IDF Home Front Command exercise simulating the spread of the coronavirus on March 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett visits an IDF Home Front Command exercise simulating the spread of the coronavirus on March 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday said he was seriously considering completely shutting off all Palestinian Authority-governed portions of the West Bank as part of Israel’s ongoing effort to control the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Bennett’s office said he requested a detailed assessment of the economic ramifications of such a closure, which will be presented to him in a meeting Monday.

It was not immediately clear if the defense minister was proposing a closure that would prevent Palestinians from entering Israel from the West Bank or a harsher lockdown that would also bar Palestinians from traveling within the territory. Asked to clarify the matter, Bennett’s office said, “Tomorrow different scenarios will be presented during the meeting.”

An unrelated closure of the West Bank began at 12:01 a.m. Sunday — not because of the virus but due to this week’s Purim holiday — and was scheduled to remain in place until at least Wednesday night. Under this closure, Palestinians are not permitted to enter Israel through the crossings surrounding the West Bank, though they can travel within the territory.

In addition, the Palestinian city of Bethlehem was completely closed off last week, with all entrances and egresses to the area shut down, in light of an outbreak of the virus there.

Bennett made his announcement during a visit to an exercise by the military’s Home Front Command, which simulated the Israeli health care system’s response to a full outbreak of the virus.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett visits an IDF Home Front Command exercise simulating the spread of the coronavirus on March 8, 2020. (Defense Ministry)

“The exercise dealt with mapping the parameters of a scenario in which there is a maximum load in the health care system, with an emphasis on the involvement of the Israel Defense Forces and the Home Front Command in such a scenario,” Bennett’s office said in a statement.

The IDF did not immediately provide additional information about the exercise.

In his comments following the drill, Bennett appeared to contradict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying that the spread of the virus had not yet reached the stage of a pandemic.

“The coronavirus has spread throughout Israel in recent days, and this requires all of us to take responsibility, including for the possibility of a pandemic,” Bennett said.

“It is important to say that we are not yet there, and we hope that it doesn’t get there,” he added.

On Saturday night, Netanyahu referred to the COVID-19 disease, which emerged in China late last year, as a “global pandemic.”

Palestinian security forces block the entrance to the Angel Hotel in the the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

“First of all, this is a global pandemic, whether the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) calls it such or not. It is a matter of days or hours. It is doubtful whether there has been a similar pandemic in the last 100 years. It seems that the rate of infection is greater than we figured,” Netanyahu said.

In the case of a declared national emergency in response to the virus, Israel’s security services — chiefly the IDF and its Home Front Command — would become responsible for managing the crisis, taking over for the Health Ministry, which is currently leading the effort.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has also proposed declaring a more minor state of emergency, which would give the Israel Police, Prison Services and other emergency response services additional powers.

Twenty-five Israelis are currently known to be infected with the virus, including one who is in serious condition. The latest four patients were announced on Saturday night.

Health Ministry deputy director general Itamar Grotto on Sunday estimated that the number of Israeli COVID-19 cases could surge to tens of thousands.

On Saturday and Sunday, Netanyahu said he was in touch with other world leaders and had discussed international cooperation to stem the spread of the outbreak. The virus hit a milestone Friday, infecting more than 100,000 people worldwide. It has killed some 3,400 people.

Israel has already required returning Israelis from several countries to self-quarantine, and barred foreigners from a slew of European and Asian countries. Some 80,000 Israelis are now reported to be in self-quarantine, and large events such as concerts and sporting matches have been canceled.

Israelis have also been advised against all non-vital international travel.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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