PM: Israel may close West Bank crossings to Palestinian areas amid virus surge

Netanyahu urges move as infections remain high among Arab Israelis, saying travel restrictions recommended by Health Ministry only partially implemented

A truck crossing at the Beitunia crossing, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 25, 2019.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A truck crossing at the Beitunia crossing, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, June 25, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that he was ordering the government to examine the possibility of closing the crossings to West Bank areas under Palestinian Authority control due to a surge in coronavirus cases among Palestinians.

“Because of the dramatic surge in infection in the Palestinian Authority, I have directed the government to immediately analyze the option of closing the crossings to Palestinian areas,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

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

As of Wednesday afternoon, there were 15,563 active coronavirus infections among Palestinians: 6,903 in the Gaza Strip and 9,470 in the West Bank.

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)

Israel has already attempted to bar Israelis entering Palestinian areas of the West Bank, and it was unclear how the new policy being mulled would differ. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, a Defense Ministry body which liases with the Palestinian Authority, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Defense Ministry on November 12 issued an order banning Israelis from visiting West Bank Palestinian areas in an attempt to slow the skyrocketing rate of infection among Arab Israelis. Two weeks later, the move has not proved itself effective as morbidity rates remain high.

While the order banned all Israelis from entering Area B, it was widely seen as an attempt to curb visits by Arab Israelis to all Palestinian areas. Israelis are nominally banned from entering Area A, which is under Palestinian civilian and security control, but many Arab Israelis routinely enter Area A to attend university or even go shopping.

After lobbying by Joint List chief MK Ayman Odeh, an exception was carved out for Arab Israeli students enrolled in Palestinian West Bank universities. According to a post on Odeh’s Facebook page, students will be asked for their university identity cards at crossings to the West Bank.

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)

Netanyahu’s office appeared to criticize those exemptions in a statement released on Wednesday, blaming them in part for the continued spread of the virus.

“Over the past month, the Health Ministry has been warning every cabinet meeting of the increase in morbidity in the PA areas, and recommended the prevention of entry to PA areas by Israelis and other restrictions, but those steps were only partially implemented,” the Prime Minister’s Office said.

Senior Israeli health officials have said that visits by Arab Israelis to PA areas — where there is little social distancing or enforcement of health regulations — bear part of the blame for the recent rise in infections in the Arab Israeli community.

The tide of infections among Arab Israelis during the second wave of coronavirus has ranged from peak to valley to peak. In September, around 30 percent of infections were in the Arab sector, even though Arab Israelis constitute around 20% of Israel’s population.

The second national lockdown, combined with hard work by local authorities tracking and tracing the disease, pushed the rate of infection down until Arab Israelis accounted for just 7% of the country’s active cases in early October.

Since that success, however, the number of infections has yet again increased dramatically, even as testing across the country has fallen. Around 38 percent of all coronavirus infections currently are in Arab cities and towns, the Arab Emergency Commission reported on Monday.

Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Mitar checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 3, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Palestinian officials have often blamed the regular movement of Palestinian workers back and forth across the Green Line for the high caseload in the West Bank.

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.

Israeli authorities banned the workers from entering Israel during the first wave of the coronavirus crisis, although crossings opened temporarily to allow workers in some essential sectors to enter the country in early May. Those workers were then obligated to remain in Israel for at least three weeks.

With the loosening of restrictions in both Israel and the West Bank, workers were permitted to enter and leave Israel on a daily basis again in late May, without being subject to a quarantine in Israel.

In July, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called on Israel to close its borders and prevent its citizens from entering PA areas. He also implored Arab Israelis to refrain from visiting their relatives across the Green Line, saying that it was contributing to a resurgent wave of coronavirus. Shtayyeh acknowledged, however, that the PA was not in control of the matter.

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