Bethlehem in coronavirus lockdown

What happened: Israel’s Defence Ministry ordered the West Bank city of Bethlehem to be put on lock-down for 14 days after seven people tested positive for COVID-19 coronavirus in the area.

  • The cases, the first to be confirmed in the West Bank, also prompted the Palestinian Authority (PA) to declare a state of emergency for 30 days in territories under its control starting Friday morning.
  • The PA said the seven infected people worked at the Angel hotel in Beit Jala where a group of Greek tourists stayed during a tour of Israel and the Palestinian territories in late February. The tourists tested positive for the virus after returning to Greece.
  • All Palestinians and Israelis are banned from entering or leaving the city, whilst other measures, such as shutting educational institutions, tourist and religious sites, banning tourists and placing restrictions on gatherings and movement between cities, have been imposed across the West Bank.
  • The PA has warned that business owners who do not follow the closure order or who try to conceal information would face penalties. The draconian measures come as the PA is facing pressure from the public to stop the spread of the virus.
  • So far Gaza has been unaffected by the virus. Hamas officials say no special measures have been being taken yet. Salama Maroof, the head of the Hamas-run Government media office, told the Hamas-linked al-Rai that no decision has been made about suspending schools in the Gaza Strip as a precautionary measure because of the coronavirus.

Context: Countries in the Middle East continue to confirm new cases daily as the virus sweeps through the Middle East.

  • Israeli and Palestinian health officials held a meeting on Thursday to coordinate their responses, and shared information on the virus’s spread.
  • COGAT, the Israeli body responsible for administrative affairs in the West Bank, has delivered 250 test kits to the Palestinians and was coordinating joint training sessions for Israeli and Palestinian medical workers.
  • The virus has disrupted Muslim worship across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to the holy city of Mecca, while Iran and Iraq have cancelled Friday’s Islamic prayers in major cities.
  • Iran said yesterday that coronavirus has killed 107 people with 3,513 confirmed cases in the country. The Kuwaiti Ministry of Health said that the country’s total confirmed cases as of yesterday was 58, and Saudi Arabia has 5 confirmed cases.
  • This week Israel announced that it has extending its compulsory 14-day quarantine to nationals returning from Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland and Austria. They join nationals returning from China, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, South Korea, and Italy.

Looking ahead: Israel and the PA are taking stringent measures to try and prevent the spread of the virus in the Palestinian territories, which lack the necessary infrastructure and medical supplies to cope with a widespread epidemic. In Israel, 17 people have already been confirmed to have caught the virus, whilst some 50,000 have been put under quarantine as precaution.