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Palestinians in West Bank and Gaza battered by record surge in virus cases

Nearly 2,000 new cases diagnosed in day, with sky-high positivity rate sparking fears of wider, undetected outbreak; 17 die from virus in 24 hours

Palestinian children have their temperature checked as they arrive at a kindergarten in Gaza city while wearing face shields due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on November 23, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)
Palestinian children have their temperature checked as they arrive at a kindergarten in Gaza city while wearing face shields due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on November 23, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Palestinians saw a record-shattering 1,811 new confirmed coronavirus infections between Monday and Tuesday as the pandemic worsened in both the West Bank and Gaza.

According to the Palestinian Authority health ministry, the West Bank logged a record 1,126 cases over the past day. The previous record, set only a day before, was 863.

Seventeen Palestinians died of COVID-19 across the West Bank and Gaza in the past day, setting another daily record.

Around 26% of tests came back positive among all Palestinians, indicating that the coronavirus could be spreading even more widely, while going largely undetected.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 14,342 active coronavirus infections among Palestinians: 6,499 in the Gaza Strip and 7,843 in the West Bank.

Around 740 Palestinians have died of the virus in the West Bank and Gaza since the beginning of the pandemic in March.

A Palestinian man and his wife ride a donkey cart past street art showing doctors mask-clad due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the Nusseirat refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, on November 16, 2020. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The accelerating pace of infection poses a risk “that matters could get out of control,” Palestinian health official Osama al-Najjar told The Times of Israel.

While al-Najjar attributed the uptick in cases in part to expanded and improved testing, he also said that mass violations of social distancing were taking place.

“A family which wants to have a wedding in Ramallah, they’ll leave the downtown areas and head to a small village where there’s no security presence, or to Area C, where there’s no lockdown,” al-Najjar lamented. “In Hebron, it’s the same thing — they head to the rural areas and fill the wedding halls.”

While the outbreak is the worst in Nablus — where 224 cases were identified — hundreds of cases were also discovered in Bethlehem, Ramallah, and Hebron governorates.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced on Monday that tighter restrictions will soon be put in place on the West Bank to “break the spread of the virus.” On Friday and Saturday, PA-controlled areas will re-enter total lockdown for the first time since July before the start of a 14-day nightly curfew.

Shtayyeh stressed that such measures would remain “limited.” But business leaders have already come out in opposition to the lockdown, which they argued would topple the ailing Palestinian economy.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh removes his protective mask during a press conference at the Foreign Press Association in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on June 9, 2020. (Abbas Momani/Pool Photo via AP)

“This decision [to enter lockdown] will lead to further backsliding for the Palestinian economy in light of the deteriorating and dangerous situation in which the economy stands,” Ramallah Chamber of Commerce director Abd al-Ghani al-Atari said in a statement on Monday night.

“A lockdown would be pointless in the light of the fact that Area C would not be subject to a lockdown. The lockdown order will go the same way as in previous lockdowns: It will be applied in city centers; but city outskirts, villages and Area C will stay open,” al-Atari said, recommending that instead the PA focus on a play to limit businesses’ losses due to the pandemic.

For the past few months, West Bank Palestinians have been living through an extended economic disaster. Tourism and the service industry — two major sectors that employ West Bank Palestinians — have been hit hard by the pandemic. Work in Israel, meanwhile, was unstable for several months as the country imposed and lifted restrictions on Palestinian workers’ ability to enter the country.

Most devastatingly, the Palestinian Authority, angered by an Israeli plan to annex parts of the West Bank, announced in late May that it would no longer accept the $170 million in import and export taxes which Israel transfers to the PA on a monthly basis.

Tax revenues collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinians have always constituted a significant part of the PA’s budget: In 2019 they amounted to about 60% of overall revenue.

Lacking the funds to pay its own employees, the PA handed out half-wages to hundreds of thousands of civil servants for months. While Ramallah agreed to begin collecting the funds again last week as part of restoring its ties with Israel, employees have yet to see any backpay.

“It would be much better if there was more focus on following health procedures rather than a return to lockdown,” al-Atari said, adding that lockdowns had been “proven to be ineffective.”

But in the tug of war between economic and epidemiological damage, a sharp increase in infections has forced the PA’s hand.

“I was in Jenin Hospital today. It was flooded, just flooded with ordinary patients and coronavirus patients,” al-Najjar said. “If this goes on, we’re looking at enormous problems for the health sector. It could overwhelm our health sector’s ability to cope.”

A health worker in personal protective equipment collects a nasal swab sample as others watching after the Friday prayer at the mani road at Jebaliya refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

Asked whether the Palestinian health care system was in danger of imminent collapse, al-Najjar replied: “If the infection rates keep rising? Yes. We’ll reach that point.”

Hamas scrambles to contain Gaza surge

In the Gaza Strip, Hamas health authorities identified 685 new coronavirus cases. Infections have spiked dramatically in the coastal enclave over the past week, with 3,703 new cases reported over the past five days.

On Saturday, 30 percent of tests taken in Gaza came back positive, according to Hamas health ministry statistics.

Hamas has been working to expand its testing capabilities and the number of hospital beds available for coronavirus patients in critical condition expanded from 100 to 150 in the past few days, Hamas Deputy Health Minister Yusuf Abu Rish said on Tuesday.

But both the terror group and international observers have warned that the Gaza health system, worn down by years of an Israeli-Egyptian blockade and three wars, cannot handle a severe increase in cases.

Much as in the West Bank, however, authorities in Gaza have been reluctant to declare a full-throated lockdown. Around 46.7% of Gaza’s population was unemployed before the pandemic. Those in the private sector who have managed to cling to their jobs during the pandemic make an average of $9.50 a day, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Gaza’s public sector employees, who account for around 40.5% of Gaza’s workforce, were also affected by a Palestinian Authority decision in mid-summer to cut its over $100 million in monthly aid to the coastal enclave as part of its attempt to confront Israel over annexation.

Rather than shutting down the coastal enclave for a second time, Hamas health authorities have relied on a traffic light plan, where high infection areas are coded as red, safe ones as green.

“The interior ministry has taken a number of precise measures to avoid a return to lockdown, given the burdens that it would impose on all sectors of society,” Hamas interior ministry spokesperson Iyad al-Bozm said last week.

But since the plan was first implemented in late October, the number of cases has only risen. Hamas official Salama Maarouf said on Monday that a return to total lockdown was being considered.

“The decision to completely close Gaza is not being ruled out, and is among the specific measures which could confront the coronavirus,” Maarouf said in a statement.

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