With 73 new coronavirus cases, West Bank infections continue sharp rise

Palestinian Authority reinstates limited lockdowns in Hebron, Nablus, as mosques and churches shuttered across territory

Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Meitar checkpoint near Hebron in the West Bank, May 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Meitar checkpoint near Hebron in the West Bank, May 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Major West Bank cities, including Nablus and Hebron, announced lockdowns on Friday as the Palestinian Authority prepared for what it fears is a second wave of its coronavirus outbreak.

The PA recorded the highest single day increase in confirmed cases for the third consecutive day on Friday, with 68 new infections. Five new cases were reported among Palestinians in East Jerusalem, which the PA also records in its official statistics.

PA authorities in Nablus and Hebron instituted limited lockdowns and ordered the closure of public areas such as wedding halls and restaurants. The hard hit villages of Halhoul and Tafouh, outside of Hebron, were issued shelter-in-place orders.

Mosques and churches were closed again across the West Bank and Palestinians have been urged to pray at home. Public demands to pray in mosques caused friction between West Bank Palestinians and security forces during the previous lockdown.

The surge in cases began on Wednesday, when 45 new cases, then the highest daily total, were confirmed by the Palestinian Health Ministry.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced that the PA coronavirus committee and the Palestinian Security Council will convene on Saturday to discuss an emergency response to the virus’ resurgence. Shtayyeh previously said he is willing to order a return to a wide-scale quarantine in the event of a second wave.

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 Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Abbas Momani/Pool Photo via AP)

The new wave of infections finds the West Bank in a more delicate position than during the previous lockdown in April and May. The PA is now in the grip of a major financial crisis and has been unable to pay its employees — whose wages constitute around 20 percent of Palestinian GDP — for weeks.

Last week, Ramallah rejected the transfer of tax revenues it receives every month from Israel, which amounted to around 85% of its budget after the coronavirus crisis began in March. In April it received double the usual cash transfer from the Israeli government, according to Palestinian Authority financial reports.

The nature of the outbreak is different this time as well, Palestinian health authorities reported.

Unlike previous local outbreaks, which were mostly isolated in small villages, the current outbreak seems to be spreading all over the West Bank. The largest spikes have been reported in and around Nablus and Hebron, but Ramallah, Bethlehem, and other major population centers also reported new infections.

“What will make this second wave more dangerous than the first is the number of virus hotspots of unknown origin and the number of infected medical personnel,” Palestinian health minister Mai al-Kaila said on Wednesday, adding that three doctors in Nablus were among the newly infected.

Palestinian Health minister Dr. Mai al-Kaila in an interview on Palestine TV on Friday, June 19, 2020. (Screenshot/Palestine TV)

Since restrictions were eased in late May after the Eid al-Fitr holiday, isolated cases have appeared in small villages in the West Bank. In each case, Palestinian health authorities were able to trace the source of the infection — usually, they reported, workers returning from Israel, or family members visiting relatives from the Israeli Negev — and contain the outbreak by ordering those exposed into quarantine.

Palestinian officials emphasized that many of the cases recorded in the second wave have unknown origins, raising fears of undetected community spread.

“Unlike in the first wave, we’re dealing with cases where we have found it impossible to locate Patient Zero,” Bethlehem health official Dr. Mohammad al-Rub’i told Al-Quds News Agency on Friday.

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