PA: Virus cases surge in West Bank, East Jerusalem; hundreds diagnosed

Palestinian Authority officials say a return to total lockdown is possible as COVID-19 cases continue to mount; Hebron area seen as hotspot

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, on April 7, 2020. (Nasser Nasser/AP)
Illustrative: 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)

Reporting a sharp uptick of infections, Palestinian Authority government spokesperson Ibrahim Milhim on Tuesday said 255 new coronavirus cases had been confirmed across the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the night before.

Despite the month-long lockdown that preceded the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions at the end of May, the Palestinian Authority is seeing record increases in confirmed cases almost every day.

PA officials said a return to total lockdown was likely should the situation continue to deteriorate.

“We are not leaning towards that right now, but 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 a statement.

The new cases bring the total number of infections detected in the last 24 hours to 353. Of the total, 181 cases were detected in Hebron governorate, which has emerged as the center of a second wave of coronavirus infections in the West Bank. There were also 53 cases diagnosed in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinian Authority counts in its official statistics.

Palestinian security forces they block the entrance to the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus on June 28, 2020, following the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) disease. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Four West Bank Palestinians have died of the virus so far, including a 40-year-old Hebron woman who succumbed on Monday.

As the number of cases in the West Bank continues to rise, Palestinian Health Ministry spokesperson Kamal al-Shakra announced on Monday that the majority of ventilators in the West Bank were in use.

“There might be none left soon, which should send alarm bells ringing,” al-Shakra said.

In early June, the West Bank had just 276 ventilators, although the Palestinian Authority, anticipating a spike in cases, has endeavored to obtain more in the intervening weeks. The World Health Organization assessed that the Palestinian Authority needed about 1,200 ventilators to implement its emergency response plan.

PA officials blamed West Bank residents for the renewed spread of the virus, saying they were not appropriately adhering to health and safety 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,” al-Shakra said.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced on Monday that those caught violating social distancing procedures would be fined.

Palestinian Health minister Dr. Mai al-Kaila in an interview on Palestine TV, June 19, 2020. (Screenshot/Palestine TV)

The new wave of infections finds the West Bank in a more delicate position than during the initial outbreak in April and May. The PA is now in the grip of a major financial crisis and has been unable to pay its employees — whose wages constitute around 20 percent of Palestinian GDP — for weeks.

The nature of the spread is different this time as well, Palestinian health authorities have said.

Unlike the previous outbreaks, which were mostly isolated in small villages, the current surge has spread all over the West Bank. The largest spikes have been reported in and around Nablus and Hebron, but Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other major population centers have also reported dozens of new infections.

Palestinian officials have said that many of the cases have unknown origins, raising fears of undetected community spread.

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

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.

Some of those regular crossings — which had briefly resumed as coronavirus restrictions eased — have now been limited, al-Bakri said.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories 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.

Israel has also seen a sharp rise in cases over the past month, with 714 new infections diagnosed in the past 24 hours, according to Health Ministry data on Tuesday.

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