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PA shutters West Bank, Israel quarantines Bethlehem after coronavirus found

Palestinian premier orders all schools closed, traffic between cities curtailed, after seven cases confirmed; Israeli and Palestinian officials hold meeting to coordinate response

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)
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)

The Palestinian Authority declared an unprecedented state of emergency in the West Bank Thursday after seven Bethlehem residents were confirmed to be carrying the coronavirus, shutting schools, banning tourists and and placing restrictions on gatherings and movement between cities.

Israel, which controls the West Bank, placed Bethlehem on lockdown, banning Israelis and Palestinians from entering or leaving the storied city, as officials from both governments race to contain the virus’s spread in Palestinian population centers.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday issued a presidential decree declaring a state of emergency in all Palestinian-controlled territory for 30 days beginning at 8 a.m. Friday, authorizing officials to take “all necessary measures to confront the risks resulting from the coronavirus and to protect public health.”

The move came after seven Palestinians from Bethlehem tested positive for the virus, the first cases reported in the Palestinian territories.

The PA said the seven worked at a hotel where a group of Greek tourists stayed during a tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories in late February. The tourists tested positive for the virus after returning to Greece.

In response, Palestinians ordered the shuttering of the Church of the Nativity and other places of worship in Bethlehem for two weeks, and banned all tourists from the West Bank for an unspecified amount of time.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh later said that all tourism and religious sites across the West Bank under the PA’s control would be closed.

In a televised statement Thursday evening, Shtayyeh said the state of emergency entailed a near-total lockdown of Palestinian society.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 16, 2019. (AP Photo/ Nasser Nasser)

All educational institutions, from kindergartens to universities and research institutions, would be closed, though government agencies would remain open.

Movement between different PA governorates and cities would be limited to necessary traffic, especially travel to and from Bethlehem, he said.

Mass gatherings, celebrations, protests, and strikes were banned, and measures were put in place to limit stockpiling and price gouging.

In Gaza, nominally covered by Abbas’s decree but de facto controlled by the Hamas terror group, officials said the enclave remained free of the coronavirus, and no special measures were being taken yet beyond having those entering the enclave quarantine for 14 days.

Salama Maroof, the head of the Hamas-run Government media office, told the Hamas-linked al-Rai that no decision has been made about suspending classes in the Gaza Strip as a precautionary measure because of the coronavirus.

Israeli officials said they were working closely with their Palestinian counterparts to contain the virus.

Israeli and Palestinian health officials held a meeting on Thursday to coordinate their responses, and shared information on the virus’s spread according to Israeli daily Haaretz.

COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian matters, said it had delivered 250 test kits to the Palestinians and was coordinating joint training sessions for Israeli and Palestinian medical workers.

COGAT said the closure of Bethlehem would apply to all Israelis and Palestinians, but not goods, which would continue to flow freely and would remain in place until further notice.

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. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The closures did not include the Rachel’s Tomb holy site, which is inside Bethlehem but walled off from the rest of the city and accessible only from Jerusalem.

Built on the site where Christians believe Jesus was born in a manger, the Church of the Nativity is one of several tourist and holy sites to shut their doors over concerns about the virus, which has infected tens of thousands of people and killed more than 3,000 globally.

Just before 4 p.m., a bearded clergyman walked outside and locked the church’s wooden door with a large key. A team of workers dressed in white overalls arrived with jugs of cleaning materials and walked through a side entrance to disinfect the building. Tariq al-Ali, one of the workers, said it was the second time his team disinfected the church.

“We have disinfected many institutions in the past week. We are under pressure,” he said.

Saif Saboh, a Palestinian tour guide, said a number of groups had canceled visits in recent days. He said he has stopped shaking hands or getting too close to tourists. “I’m terrified,” he said. “Any tourist could be infected.”

The virus has disrupted Muslim worship across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, while Iran has canceled Friday’s Islamic prayers in major cities. Iraq canceled Friday prayers in Karbala, where a weekly sermon is delivered on behalf of the country’s top Shiite cleric.

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. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

The Church of the Nativity receives some 10,000 tourists a day, according to Palestinian officials, and is expected to welcome tens of thousands of visitors during the Easter season.

Elias al-Arja, the head of the Bethlehem hotel owners union, angrily accused authorities of caving in to panic. “This will cause huge damage to the economy. We have 3,000 workers in the tourist sector and they will all go home. Who is going to feed their families?” he said.

Anton Suleiman, the mayor of Bethlehem, acknowledged the economic impact, but said “public safety is the most important thing to us.”

Asbed Balian, senior cleric of the Armenian church at the Church of the Nativity, said infected visitors had entered the site.

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)

“People affected by corona visited the church,” he told AFP. “It will be closed for 14 days and they are going to spray antiseptics.”

The group visited several other holy sites throughout Israel and the West Bank, according to Israel’s Health Ministry, including the cliffside Mar Saba monastery near the Dead Sea, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the Church of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, among others.

Despite banning mass gatherings a day earlier, Israeli officials said there were no special precautions at holy sites, including the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, though hand sanitizing stations were placed at the site.

“In this time of distress, there is nothing more appropriate than coming to pray at the Western Wall,” said Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi who oversees the site.

The nearby Al Aqsa mosque compound was expected to welcome 50,000 worshipers for Friday prayers. The Islamic Waqf, which administers the site, said the buildings have been disinfected and the sermon would be brief.

On Thursday, Israeli officials said an American tourist who had stayed in the Jerusalem for nearly a week last month had been found to have the disease, ordering anyone who may have come in contact with her into quarantine.

Israel, which so far has 17 confirmed cases of the disease, has imposed stringent measures on arrivals from many European nations in a bid to contain the disease.

Empty departure halls at Ben Gurion Airport. on March 4, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Israel and the United States also scrapped the remainder of a joint military exercise in Germany Thursday.

The Israeli army announced that from noon Friday all forces would be prevented from leaving Israel, whether “on personal trips or on duty,” in order to prevent the virus from spreading through the military’s ranks.

More than 95,000 people have been infected and over 3,200 have died worldwide from the virus, which by Thursday had reached some 80 countries and territories.

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