Israel tightens restrictions on Palestinian workers, bars them from commuting

Only Palestinians in certain essential industries okayed to enter country, and will need to stay in Israel for month or more, Defense Ministry says

A Palestinian sanitary department worker sprays disinfectant on March 16, 2020 around the refugee camp of Aida near Bethlehem. (Musa Al SHAER / AFP)
A Palestinian sanitary department worker sprays disinfectant on March 16, 2020 around the refugee camp of Aida near Bethlehem. (Musa Al SHAER / AFP)

Israel on Tuesday tightened restrictions on Palestinians entering the country for work, as the country largely shuttered its economy in an attempt to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus.

In a pre-dawn announcement Tuesday, Defense Minister Naftali Bennett ordered that only Palestinian workers in certain “essential” sectors would be allowed entry. These include healthcare, agriculture and construction, and could include other industries on a case-by-case basis.

He also said Palestinians would no longer be allowed to travel back and forth from the West Bank to work sites, but would need to sleep in Israel, with the employer providing lodging. The workers were told to expect to remain in Israel for one-to-two months.

Israel has largely shut off travel from outside the country, and ordered anyone who does enter to quarantine for 14 days. However, the measure does not extend to West Bank Palestinians, who could enter from Jordan and were only required by Palestinian health officials to quarantine if coming from certain countries.

On Monday, Palestinians closed the loophole by requiring anyone coming from abroad to quarantine for two weeks.

A general view of the almost empty departure hall at the Palestinian side of the border crossing with Jordan in the West Bank city of Jericho, March 10, 2020. (FLASH90)

Commercial trade between Israel and the West Bank will continue, according to Hebrew media reports.

There have been 39 cases of COVID-19 among West Bank Palestinians, and none in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials as of Monday.

The vast majority of the cases, 37, have been in Bethlehem, which has been under a strict cordon since earlier this month after a group of Greek tourists seemingly passed the virus to hotel workers there. Bennett extended the closure of Bethlehem in the Monday announcement, according to Hebrew media reports.

People wearing masks visit the Church of the Nativity, revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on March 5, 2020. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Two cases have also been reported in the central West Bank city of Tulkarem, which abuts Israel, and on Monday, officials told residents there to remain in their homes for 24 hours.

Palestinian officials said recently that PA President Mahmoud Abbas, who is 85 years old and has age-related health issues, is no longer receiving any guests as a precaution against the virus, and is only meeting with a couple of very close aides. Most of his staff have been asked to work from home.

Israel has recorded 298 cases of the virus as of Monday night, according to the Health Ministry. The government has announced strict new measures since the weekend that have essentially shut down large parts of the economy, urging Israelis to remain at home as much as possible. Only essential services like supermarkets and clinics as well as small offices, are supposed to remain open

Israel had already placed some restrictions on Palestinians entering Israel, banning anyone over 50 and shutting the Erez crossing with Gaza. In normal times, thousands of Palestinians with security clearance hold work permits in Israel at any given time.

Palestinians authorities have also announced wide ranging measures aimed at stanching the spread of the virus, shutting schools, tourist sites and other businesses in early March when the first West Bank cases were reported.

Israeli policeman stand in front of a closed crossing between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Friday, March 6, 2020. The closure that started Friday followed the identification of seven cases of COVID-19 among Palestinians in the city, the first in the Palestinian territories. Israel also announced a closure on Bethlehem affecting Israelis, Palestinians and tourists. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Both the Israeli and Palestinian economies are expected to see massive deficits wrought by restrictions on movement and businesses, though the Palestinian financial situation is regarded as more dire. Even before the crisis, officials had warned in recent years that the Palestinian economy was on the verge of collapse.

Israelis wearing face mask for fear of the coronavirus walks in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 16, 2020.
(Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

On Monday, PA Finance Minister Shukri Bishara met Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and demanded that Israel release hundreds of millions of shekels in tax funds that it has withheld from the Palestinians over their payments to security prisoners and their families as well as wounded terrorists and the families of slain attackers, the PA Finance Ministry said in a statement.

Bishara said that handing over the funds, which come from the tax funds Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinians every month, would “contribute to helping the Palestinian treasury adopt the best health-related measures to face off” the coronavirus, the statement also said.

Israel forcefully opposes the payments to the security prisoners and others, arguing that they incentivize violent attacks against Israelis. The Ramallah-based Palestinian leadership contends that they seek to provide social welfare to Palestinian families and make up for what it describes as an unfair military justice system.

Shtayyeh also said on Monday that Kuwait had donated $5.5 million to the Palestinians to confront the virus.

Last week, Abbas said Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani gave medical equipment valued at $10 million to the PA to fight it.

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