Israel says all visitors to Bethlehem in past 2 weeks must self-quarantine

Directive by Health Ministry comes as defense minister mulls full closure of West Bank to contain COVID-19 outbreak

A priest walks in the Church of the Nativity compound in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 8, 2020, after it came under lockdown two days ago as an emergency measure to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Musa Al SHAER / AFP)
A priest walks in the Church of the Nativity compound in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 8, 2020, after it came under lockdown two days ago as an emergency measure to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. (Musa Al SHAER / AFP)

Israel’s Health Ministry on Sunday said people who had been to the “Bethlehem area” in the past two weeks must enter a 14-day home quarantine, amid an outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus in the West Bank city.

It was not immediately clear from the ministry’s directive which surrounding areas were included in the order. It also did not specify whether the instructions referred to citizens and non-citizens alike.

The Palestinian city was completely closed off last week, with all entrances and egresses to the area shut down to contain the spread of the disease. Streets have been empty since the first cases were announced last week, and the Church of the Nativity, built on the grotto where tradition says Christ was born, has been closed to the public.

The epicenter of the outbreak is the Angel hotel, located in Beit Jala, a town on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where a group of Greek tourists who were later found to have contracted the virus had stayed. Fourteen of the 19 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the West Bank are hotel workers.

Palestinian security forces wear masks and disinfect their hands next to a hotel that has been sealed off in the town of Beit Jala, south of Jerusalem, following confirmed cases of coronavirus COVID-19, on March 5, 2020. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

Earlier Sunday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett 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 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.

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.

“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.

A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask stands at the entrance to a hotel in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 6, 2020, following a lockdown on the biblical city after the first Palestinian cases of the deadly coronavirus were discovered there. (Musa Al Shaer/AFP)

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.

Thirty-nine Israelis are currently known to be infected with the virus, including one who is in serious condition.

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.

Also Sunday, the Hamas-run Health Ministry urged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip to avoid travel abroad as the coronavirus continues to spread around the world. No cases of the virus have been reported in Gaza, where more than 2 million people live, including many in densely populated neighborhoods.

Judah Ari Gross, agencies contributed to this report.

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