Palestinians to lock down 4 West Bank governorates on Thursday

In Gaza, main coronavirus laboratory not processing new tests for second day as it awaits shipment of kits

A man walks outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020.  (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
A man walks outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, Monday, Nov. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Four Palestinian West Bank governorates will enter a weeklong lockdown beginning on Thursday in an attempt to curb a dramatic surge in coronavirus cases, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced on Monday afternoon.

The Nablus, Hebron, Tulkarem, and Bethlehem governorates will enter lockdown. Between them, the four governorates have a population of around 1.6 million Palestinians, according to publicly available PA statistics.

All stores will be closed except for pharmacies and grocery stores, and movement between all 11 West Bank governorates will be forbidden, Shtayyeh said.

Over the past few weeks, the number of active cases among West Bank Palestinians has swelled to record highs. According to the PA Health Ministry, there are currently 24,857 total active coronavirus cases among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, around 14,210 of them in the West Bank.

Some 40,000 Palestinians are currently in quarantine, and 55 West Bank schools have already been closed due to the discovery of infections among students and teachers, Shtayyeh said.

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)

Given the ailing state of the Palestinian economy, PA officials hesitated before announcing a return to lockdown, even as the infection rate rose. Business owners announced their firm opposition when a partial lockdown — including a nightly curfew — was announced two weeks ago.

“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 at the time, calling a lockdown “pointless.”

Shtayyeh also asked Palestinians who work inside Israel to stay at their places of work throughout the lockdown, although he did not stay whether such a move had been discussed with Israeli authorities.

Approximately 100,000 West Bank Palestinians are legally employed in Israel or in West Bank settlements, according to the labor rights group Kav LaOved. They constitute a large part of the Palestinian economy; approximately 15-20 percent of employed Palestinians work in Israel.

A spokesperson for Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, which has previously banned Palestinian workers from entering Israel to prevent the spread of the virus, said that as of Monday, there had been no changes in its policies on Palestinians entering and exiting Israel on a daily basis.

In the Gaza Strip, mosques, schools, universities and nurseries have all been closed, and a curfew starting at 6 p.m. has been in effect since Wednesday due to the rise in infections.

With 10,647 active coronavirus cases, Hamas health officials have warned that Gaza’s fragile health system — battered by a 13-year-blockade by Egypt and Israel, as well as three wars between Israel and Hamas — cannot withstand much further strain.

The terror group, which is sworn to Israel’s destruction, has ruled the coastal enclave since 2007. Israel says it maintains the blockade on the territory to prevent Hamas from importing arms.

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

Gaza’s European Hospital, a major center for treating coronavirus patients, briefly filled up on Saturday before discharging some recovered patients, according to hospital director Yousef al-Aqad.

According to statistics provided by the World Health Organization, around 70 percent of beds in the Gaza Strip designated for use by coronavirus patients were occupied as of Monday.

But despite the rise in cases, authorities have shied away from a return to total lockdown. Unemployment in Gaza was already around 45% before the pandemic hit the coastal enclave in earnest in late August. Most Gazans are employed in the service industry, sectors in which working from home is not an option.

“We considered imposing a full lockdown, but we decided against it, given the burdens it places on all sectors of society,” interior ministry spokesperson Iyad al-Bozm said on Thursday.

Maher al-Tabaa, a spokesperson for the Gaza Chamber of Commerce, told The Times of Israel in late November that a return to total lockdown in the coastal enclave could “destroy what remains of the Gazan economy after these last few months.”

Hamas Health Ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra sounded a more pessimistic note in an interview on Monday afternoon with Voice of Al-Aqsa Radio, a station closely linked to the terror group.

“We are not talking, at this stage, about controlling or containing the epidemic,” al-Qidra said. “We are talking about continuing efforts to impede or ease the intensity of its spread in the Gaza Strip.”

Israeli officials have repeatedly said they view containing the coronavirus outbreak in Gaza as a key security interest. A serious outbreak in the Hamas-ruled enclave, the Israeli security apparatus has assessed, could raise tensions between Israel and Hamas, and even lead to a renewed bout of fighting.

“We are not preventing any medical assistance, neither to the West Bank nor to Gaza. We are encouraging the international community and all the organizations to assist the Palestinians in their challenge to deal with COVID-19,” Elad Goren, an official in the Defense Ministry’s Civil Administration, told reporters in a briefing last week.

But health authorities in the coastal enclave have regularly issued warnings that a chronic shortage of tests could lead to disaster. Despite the high caseload and positivity rate, Hamas health authorities have limited medical resources and only one testing center.

A Palestinian kindergarten student takes part in a class while wearing a face shield due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in Gaza city on November 23, 2020. (Photo by MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

A typical day has seen between 2,000 to 3,000 tests conducted in the nearly two-million-person enclave. With high rates of tests coming back positive — 36.3% on Sunday — large numbers of cases could be going undetected.

On Sunday night, the Gaza Health Ministry announced that its main laboratory for conducting coronavirus tests would cease processing them due to a lack of materials.

In a statement on Monday, senior World Health Organization official Gerald Rockenschaub announced that the international body had procured 28,000 coronavirus tests, thus temporarily resolving the shortage. At 2,500 tests per day, the new batch should last around 11 days.

The first batch would arrive Monday, with another shipment arriving later this week, Rockenschaub said.

According to the PA Health Ministry, 113,755 Palestinians have been infected with the novel coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, and 942 have died from the virus.

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