PA asks Israel to test thousands of Palestinian workers before they return home
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PA asks Israel to test thousands of Palestinian workers before they return home

Up to 50,000 laborers expected to move back to West Bank ahead of Passover, sparking fears of surge in infections; Shtayyeh blasts notion of Israel ‘medically annexing’ territory

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

Palestinian health workers disinfectant Palestinian workers as they cross back from Israel to the West Bank at a checkpoint in Tarqumiya on March 27, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian health workers disinfectant Palestinian workers as they cross back from Israel to the West Bank at a checkpoint in Tarqumiya on March 27, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

The Palestinian Authority is asking Israel to test Palestinian workers for the coronavirus before tens of thousands of them return to the West Bank ahead of Passover next week, fearing they could spark a massive surge in infections in the territory, officials said Wednesday.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh spoke by phone with Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the World Health Organization’s mission to the Palestinians, and asked him to convey the request — on behalf of the Palestinians — to Israel,  Ibrahim Milhem, the premier’s spokesman said at an evening press conference in Ramallah

Rockenschaub confirmed the request to The Times of Israel and he said he would imminently do so.

Nearly two weeks ago after the first confirmed cases of the virus 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 that their employers provide them.

Asked whether Israel would agree to test the laborers, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Defense Ministry body responsible for liaising with the Palestinians, did not respond.

It was not immediately clear exactly how many Palestinian laborers were currently in Israel. Milhem said Wednesday that there were 50,000, but at a press conference on Sunday Shtayyeh put the figure at 35,000. COGAT did not provide a number.

Milhem said the workers would return to the West Bank during Passover, which begins the evening of April 8.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh chairs a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley village of Fasayil, September 16, 2019. (Majdi Mohammed/AP)

“[Israel] is going to return 50,000 workers to us during Passover,” he said. “Imagine how big the danger will be.”

Milhem and other Palestinian officials have recently expressed concerns about the workers spreading the virus upon their return to the West Bank.

In the past week, several laborers who came back to their homes in the West Bank tested positive for the virus and transmitted it to others.

Shtayyeh also blasted on Wednesday comments from an Israeli official who spoke of the notion of Israel “medically annexing” parts of the West Bank to prevent the spread of the contagion.

“We condemn the Israeli talk about medical annexation of the West Bank. We do not accept Israeli guardianship over our measures. Israel should leave us alone,” he wrote on Facebook.

On Tuesday, an unnamed senior official in the Israeli Health Ministry told Channel 12 that Israel would have no choice but to “medically annex” the West Bank.

The official, according to the channel, said he believed the number of people infected with the virus in the West Bank was higher than official tallies and stated that efforts to contain the virus in Israel and the territory should be united.

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