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PA: 4 people at Bethlehem-area hotel may have virus, Nativity church to shutter

Palestinian Tourism Ministry decides hotels throughout West Bank will stop welcoming tourists as of Friday

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

Tourists and pilgrims visit the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
Tourists and pilgrims visit the Manger Square outside the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank city of Bethlehem on December 24, 2019. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry said Thursday that four people at a hotel in the Bethlehem area were suspected of having being infected with the coronavirus by tourists who have since flown back to Greece.

The tourists were diagnosed with the virus upon their return home.

If the people in the West Bank are confirmed to be carrying the virus, they would be the first cases diagnosed in the Palestinian-administered parts of the West Bank.

The hotel, in the town of Beit Jala, near Bethlehem south of Jerusalem, has been placed on lockdown.

Israel’s Health Ministry said the infected Greek tourists also spent time in Israeli cities. They visited Israel and the West Bank between February 19 and 27 and were diagnosed after their return, the ministry said in a statement.

Kamal al-Shakhra, the PA Health Ministry’s director-general of healthcare, told Palestine TV that “official parties” had informed the Palestinians that the tourists had been diagnosed with the virus.

He said that initial results of tests carried out on employees and tourists at the hotel led them to suspect that four people were carrying the coronavirus. The ministry was still awaiting final results on the four, he said.

A member of an emergency anti-epidemic headquarters in Mangyongdae District disinfects a tramcar at Songsan Tram Station to prevent new coronavirus infection in Pyongyang, North Korea, Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Cha Song Ho)

Later on Thursday, PA Tourism Ministry spokesman Jarees Qumsiyeh said that all tourism and archaeological sites in the West Bank would be shuttered.

He said the ministry also decided that hotels throughout the West Bank would stop welcoming tourists starting on Friday.

Asked whether the PA would prevent individual tourists from coming to the West Bank, Qumsiyeh said it would not do so but noted that they would not be able to visit any sites or stay at hotels. He specifically noted that the Church of Nativity, a site revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, would close down at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

However, the tourism minister told the AFP news agency that there would be a blanket ban on tourists, although it was unclear how that could be enforced.

“We have decided to prevent the entry of tourists for a period of 14 days,” Rula Maayah said.

Bethlehem is the most visited tourist destination in the West Bank and many businesses including restaurants, hotels, souvenir stores and others rely on tourists to stay afloat.

After emerging in China late last year, the virus has now infected upwards of 90,000 people worldwide and killed approximately 3,200, most of them in China and Iran, though cases have been reported in 81 countries and territories.

It has prompted governments around the globe to take significant measures to prevent its spread.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, said in a statement that it has been helping the PA for the past two weeks to defend itself against the spread of the virus.

It said that it provided the PA with 250 kits to test for the virus.

The PA Transportation Ministry also said that it started to sterilize buses and vans in the Bethlehem area on Thursday and would subsequently undertake similar measures in other parts of the West Bank.

Bethlehem University announced that it would close until further notice.

An official document signed by PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila earlier on Thursday said that the ministry recommended closing all schools, mosques and churches in Bethlehem and nearby towns for the coming 14 days.

The document also advised suspending events, seminars, conferences and social and sporting activities in the Bethlehem area for two weeks as well as canceling tourists’ hotel reservations.

It added that the ministry recommended turning a rehabilitation center in the Bethlehem region into a place to host persons diagnosed with the coronavirus and transforming the Angel Hotel in the area into a quarantine facility.

Shakhra said that the ministry holds the document’s recommendations should only be implemented, if authorities confirm a case of the virus.

More than 200,000 Palestinians live in the Bethlehem area, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

On Wednesday, the ministry had said that a total of 73 persons were in quarantine; it said while most of those in quarantine were at their homes, a small number were in special facilities in Jericho in the West Bank and Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Authority government meeting in Ramallah on December 27, 2018. (Credit: Wafa)

The ministry also called on Palestinians on Wednesday to avoid participating in conferences and workshops abroad.

Israel, meanwhile, has recently taken measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus in its territories, mandating citizens who visited many of the countries with confirmed cases to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

The Israeli Health Ministry has said that a total of 15 Israelis have been diagnosed with the virus.

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