PA to reinstate West Bank lockdown on Friday as virus cases surge

With 280 infections announced by 11 a.m. on Wednesday after several days of increasing infections, Palestinians decides on five-day closure

Palestinian Authority government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim speaks at a press conference in Ramallah on April 1, 2020. (Wafa)
Palestinian Authority government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim speaks at a press conference in Ramallah on April 1, 2020. (Wafa)

With virus cases on the rise, the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday said it would introduce a five-day lockdown in the West Bank on Friday.

All West Bank governorates will be locked down and all businesses will be closed except for pharmacies and supermarkets. Travel and movement for non-essential reasons will be prohibited. Public sector workers will be asked to stay home as well, Palestinian Authority spokesperson Ibrahim Milhim confirmed.

“As the government sees it, the length of the lockdown will correlate directly with the level of public health consciousness of its citizens, the latter of which has not been in evidence in recent weeks. That is what caused this relapse,” Milhim said.

The total number of coronavirus infections in the West Bank stands at 2,686, of which 2,226 are active. The Palestinian Health Ministry says that although 3,085 cases have been recorded since the beginning of the crisis in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, 78% of the cases were confirmed in the last two weeks alone.

Seven Palestinians have died from the virus in the West Bank since the start of the pandemic, three of them this week.

After infections wane, West Bank experiences spike

The return to coronavirus lockdown measures in the West Bank came slowly, then all at once.

When the lockdown measures were lifted after the Eid al-Fitr holiday in late May, no new cases of the novel coronavirus had appeared for several days. Slowly, scattered infections emerged across the area. As further restrictions were lifted — and daily movement was restored between Israel and the West Bank — that trickle became a wave.

PA officials began to say that a new lockdown was “to be expected” if the number of cases continued to rise.

“If we continue to see an escalation in the number of cases, that may lead to a return to lockdown, and this is something to be expected,” PA Interior Ministry spokesperson Ghassan Nimr said in an interview with Voice of Palestine radio on Monday.

Several West Bank cities and localities began to go back into lockdown — Hebron governorate for several days, Nablus for five days, Bethlehem until further notice — as the map of confirmed infections across the West Bank shifted.

A paramedic from the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health disinfects Palestinian laborers to help contain the coronavirus, as they exit a checkpoint after returning from work in Israel, near the West Bank village of Nilin, west of Ramallah, April 7, 2020. (Nasser Nasser/AP)

Finally, the announcement came: starting on Friday, the entire West Bank will return to lockdown for five days to prevent the further spread of coronavirus.

In the past week, the scale of the outbreak came into focus, with hundreds of cases diagnosed all over the area. On Wednesday, 199 cases were diagnosed in Hebron governorate alone, and three West Bank Palestinians have died in the last two days, the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry announced.

On Sunday, Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila warned that “there may be hundreds of hitherto undetected cases in Hebron.” According to her calculations, the number of cases in Hebron was doubling every four days, al-Kaila said.

PA officials blamed West Bank residents for the renewed spread of the virus, saying they were not appropriately adhering to health and safety rules. Officials said Palestinian residents were attending social events such as weddings and funerals in violation of social-distancing rules.

“There’s no difference in the virus between the first and second waves, the only difference is the lack of adherence [to medical guidelines]. If the situation continues like this and the number of deaths and critical cases mounts, we will see a medical disaster in Palestine. As a matter of fact, we have one already,” Palestinian health ministry spokesperson Kamal al-Shakhra said.

Illustrative: Palestinian Groom Rafeh Qassim and his bride celebrating their wedding with almost no guests, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 18, 2020. (Flash90)

Only 5% of confirmed coronavirus cases are isolated in official treatment centers run by the Palestinian Ministry of Health, with the vast majority allowed to stay home and self-isolate.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced on Monday that those caught violating social-distancing procedures would be punished by security forces.

Asked to explain why Hebron in particular became the center of the outbreak, Hebron governor Jabarin al-Bakri said movement back and forth across the Green Line was to blame.

“We have 50,000 Palestinian workers who regularly go inside [Israel], and 270,000 Negev residents who come here often, and many residents of Jerusalem have family members here. There’s a lot of mixing with Palestinians who live inside [Israel],” al-Bakri told Palestine TV.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announced last week that crossings would close to Palestinian workers starting on Tuesday, June 30. Afterwards, workers will be barred from entering Israel from the West Bank until further notice. Workers will be permitted to return to the West Bank on July 16.

Over 60,000 Palestinian workers crossed into Israel on Sunday, COGAT said in a statement on its Arabic-language Facebook page.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians who work in Israel illegally cross at gaps in the separation fence; however, such movement may continue despite restrictions at checkpoints and in Palestinian cities.

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