The Palestinian Authority health ministry announced six new cases of coronavirus in the West Bank on Saturday, bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 216.
A spokesman for the ministry said the uptick is due to the uncoordinated return of workers from Israeli settlements who he says have been infecting other Palestinians.
While the PA has barred its citizens from continuing to work in the settlements, no such directive has been given by Israel and some employees have continued to show up to work.
Palestinian officials have recently cautioned that the number of cases in the West Bank could rise dramatically if Palestinians returning from jobs in Israel do not properly quarantine themselves.
“If the workers do not isolate [themselves], we will be moving toward a disaster on the level of all of Palestine,” Kamal al-Shakhra, the director-general of primary care at the PA Health Ministry, told reporters on Thursday.
Some two weeks ago after the first confirmed coronavirus cases of the virus emerged in Israel and the West Bank, Israeli authorities barred the vast majority of Palestinians from entering the Jewish state, but allowed tens of thousands of Palestinian workers in “essential sectors,” mostly construction, to spend one to two months in the country.
Israeli authorities said the workers would not be allowed to move back and forth between the West Bank and Israel and would be required to sleep in accommodations provided by their employers.
On Friday, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said 45,000 workers would return to the West Bank before Passover begins on April 8.
Shtayyeh has instructed all Palestinian workers to quarantine themselves in their homes upon their return to the West Bank and said violators will be held legally accountable.
In the past month, the PA has taken a number of drastic measures to prevent the spread of the virus in the West Bank, including heavily restricting freedom of movement.
Gaza’s Hamas-run health ministry announced Saturday that five of the 12 Palestinians who contracted the coronavirus have recovered and have tested negative for COVID-19.
The virus has found a way into Gaza, even though the Mediterranean enclave has been largely cut off from the world by an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized control of it from the Palestinian Authority 13 years ago. Israel says the blockade is in place to prevent Hamas importing weapons and other military supplies.
Although movement in and out of Gaza has been heavily restricted since 2007, it is not cut off altogether. The first two virus cases were men who had returned from a religious conference in Pakistan, part of a wave of hundreds of returnees who were placed into quarantine.
Hamas has sought to beef up its quarantine efforts in recent days, opening 18 additional facilities in clinics and hotels and declaring them off-limits. It has also banned weekly street markets and shut down wedding halls, cafes and mosques and extended quarantine periods.
There’s only a small number of available tests in Gaza. International officials fear the virus could quickly spread and overwhelm an already gutted health system.