The Hamas-run Health Ministry announced the first two cases of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip early Sunday.
The ministry said the cases were two people who returned recently from Pakistan. It said they had been moved to isolation at a hospital in Rafah, a city in the southern Gaza Strip.
“Two citizens tested positive (for COVID-19), after they returned from Pakistan,” it said, but stressed that neither person left the quarantine facility near the Egyptian border or mixed with the wider population.
Health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qudra said the sick were two men, aged 30 and 40, who were in stable condition.
The development added to fears of a potential outbreak in the crowded enclave, which has an overstretched health care system after years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade aimed at curbing the military activities of its rulers, the Hamas terrorist group, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction.
The blockade has rendered Gaza off-limits to foreign tourists, and Israel and Egypt have shut their borders with the territory as part of measures aimed at containing the virus.
Palestinians returning home can still enter Gaza, but are sent to quarantine centers.
Experts have warned that the blockade and high poverty rates, along with a densely packed population and weak health system, create perfect conditions for a rapid outbreak, with one comparing the risk of transmission to that on a cruise ship.
Palestinians in Gaza are closely tracking the pandemic through incessant media coverage — and preparing for the worst. Schools are closed and more than 2,700 people are in home isolation, mostly having returned from Egypt.
Israel said it has been working to ensure the supply of medical supplies to the Strip, including facilitating the delivery of 500 WHO-funded coronavirus testing kits on Wednesday.
It is as yet unclear if Israel, which has imposed tight restrictions on its own population, will allow seriously ill coronavirus patients to be transferred from the Strip.
Hamas authorities are preparing to build 1,000 isolation rooms near the southern border with Egypt.
Matthias Schmale, Gaza director of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, said last week he was already operating under outbreak conditions, putting in place social-distancing measures.
“Everything I am hearing is if the outbreak reaches the magnitude where you need more than 60 ICU beds to treat, it will become increasingly difficult and could well turn into a disaster of gigantic proportions,” he said.