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‘Panic and fear’ in Gaza as new virus cases lead to lockdown, first death

Nine new infections confirmed Wednesday in areas around Strip; Hamas officials say cases not connected, leading to fears of community spread

A Palestinian Hamas policeman wears a face mask as he guards in a street in Gaza City during a 48 hour lockdown imposed following the discovery of the first coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip on August 25, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian Hamas policeman wears a face mask as he guards in a street in Gaza City during a 48 hour lockdown imposed following the discovery of the first coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip on August 25, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

Gaza saw its first death outside of quarantine facilities from the coronavirus Wednesday afternoon, as nine new cases were confirmed in residential areas on the coastal enclave, raising fears of growing community spread among its beleaguered residents.

Sixty-one-year-old Rabah Labad, a member of Hamas’ military wing, became the first victim in a new cluster of coronavirus cases that appeared in the Gaza Strip suddenly, after six months of the virus having been successfully contained. There have been 15 cases confirmed since Monday, when Gaza authorities announced a 48-hour lockdown following the discovery of four cases in the al-Maghazi refugee camp.

Cases have appeared in different regions, and Hamas officials have said that some are unrelated to one another. This could be evidence of community spread — infections appearing without a clear chain of transmission — which would mean that many cases are going undetected. Hamas officials have not released information about the level of testing for the virus in the Strip.

For over seven months, authorities have managed to largely ward off the spread of the virus in the Gaza Strip, subjecting thousands of arrivals in the Strip to severe quarantine measures — at least 21 days in health facilities specifically designated by the Hamas health ministry for the purpose.

Gaza had previously seen only one death from coronavirus, a woman from Rafah who succumbed while in quarantine after arriving from Egypt.

“We managed to keep the virus out for this whole time, even as the virus spread across the region and the world. But we always warned that the scenario of the virus entering the Strip was possible,” a spokesperson for the Gaza Health Ministry said on Monday night. “This scenario today became reality.”

Hamas health ministry spokesperson Ashraf al-Qidra said that the origin of the cluster of infections found Monday came while a woman from al-Maghazi refugee camp was visiting al-Makassed hospital inside Israel. Unconfirmed rumors suggest that she contracted the virus when she reached the Israeli side of the border and was initially turned back.

Gazans were taken by surprise by the sudden lockdown. In the absence of coronavirus, schools in the coastal enclave were set to re-open for the coming year. Popular markets and restaurants had been fully open for months. Beaches were full of residents and large rallies were held with little social distancing.

The announcement that, after six months, coronavirus was spreading in Gaza changed all that.

“There is an intense feeling of panic and fear. Most people haven’t left their houses since Monday night,” said Mukhaimar Abu Sa’ada, a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.

In the refugee camp no one was allowed in or out while Hamas officials tested. In the rest of the Gaza Strip, residents were allowed to leave their homes “when absolutely necessary,” according to Hamas official Salama Maarouf.

Locals flooded Gaza’s supermarkets to purchase groceries on Monday night after the cases were announced. Hundreds of mourners also broke the lockdown to gather in the Gaza City neighborhood of Shujaiya to attend the funeral of four members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad who died in an explosion Monday night.

In most of the Strip, however, normally packed streets and beaches have been largely empty since Sunday night’s announcement.

Palestinian mourners carry the coffins of members of the Islamic Jihad terror group during their funeral procession in Gaza City, on August 25, 2020. Four members of Palestinian Islamic Jihad were killed in Gaza overnight, by the accidental explosion of a bomb they were handling, witnesses and security sources said. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Officials are widely expected to announce an extension of the lockdown, which is set to expire Wednesday night.

The Gaza health system has already been under intense strain for years due to the blockade by Israel and Egypt, World Health Organization official Ayadil Saparbekov told The Times of Israel, adding that there are currently only 87 ventilators in the Gaza Strip.

Rising tensions between Israel and Hamas, the terror group which controls the coastal enclave, has compounded the strain. Gaza-based groups have recently launched hundreds of explosive balloons into Israel, which has responded by banning the entry of fuel via the Kerem Shalom commercial crossing with Gaza in an attempt to pressure Hamas.

Without fuel, Gaza’s only power plant shut down two weeks ago, reducing the amount of electricity residents receive to around four hours a day. Running water and sewage treatment have also been impacted by the power cuts.

“With running water available only a few hours a day, this decreases the ability of people to wash their hands and protect themselves from the virus,” International Red Cross spokesperson Suheir Zaqout said.

Even hospitals are impacted by the blackouts, Zaqout said. Many health facilities receive no more than 12 hours a day, often less. Some attempt to compensate with generators, many of which are old and require fuel to run.

Qatari envoy Mohammad al-Emadi reportedly arrived in Gaza on Tuesday night in an attempt to restore calm to the area. Qatar has already agreed to extend a program that provides financial support to 100,00 poor families in the Strip for an additional six months, but Hamas is reportedly demanding additional funding from Qatar in exchange for a de-escalation of violence. Hamas has also publicly claimed that Israel was not upholding its ceasefire obligations from 2018.

Palestinians line up in front of a bakery to buy bread during a 48 hour lockdown imposed following the discovery of the first coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip, on August 25, 2020. (AP/Khalil Hamra)

International Crisis Group analyst Ofer Zalzberg said that he believed that Israel would “increase its quest for a short term de-escalation of the violent altercations,” and ease restrictions on medical equipment entering the coastal enclave should the outbreak continue.

“Massive contagion in Gaza coupled with Israeli refusal to permit entry of Gazans to Israeli hospitals would not sit well with a White House signing ceremony of an Arab-Israeli normalization agreement,” Zalzberg said.

The Hamas-imposed lockdown has not yet brought an end to the incendiary balloons causing fires in southern Israel. Some of the Gaza-based groups have said that lockdown or no, they would continue to fire balloons across the border fence. But Abu Sa’ada said he believes that “matters were leading towards a ceasefire.”

“Hamas cannot fight two battles at once. The most important battle right now is against the spread of coronavirus,” Abu Sa’ada said. “I don’t think Israel is the main issue right now.”

But it is unclear how long Hamas can maintain a lockdown in Gaza, said Abu Sa’ada. A coronavirus lockdown in the West Bank by the Palestinian Authority has effectively ceased to be enforced after several rounds of protests by restaurant owners and small merchants.

“People here are desperate. You can hold a lockdown for maybe two weeks, but after that people will break it,” Abu Sa’ada said. “Now that the virus is here, it is going to be very hard to break the chain of transmission.”

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