First coronavirus cases reported in Gaza

Three workers in uniform disinfect street

Palestinian workers disinfect a street in Gaza City on 22 March. Two cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in the Strip. 

Ashraf Amra APA images

The first two cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, have been confirmed in the Gaza Strip, one of the most densely populated places in the world.

Yousef Abu al-Rish, a health ministry official in Gaza, announced that the pair had recently returned from Pakistan and were already in quarantine when diagnosed.

Both patients were transferred to a field hospital in Gaza’s southernmost city, Rafah, where preparations for potential coronavirus cases have been made. All those who came into contact with the patients have been placed in compulsory quarantine.

A third Palestinian, in the occupied West Bank town of Salfit, who attended the same conference in the Pakistani town of Raiwind near Lahore, also tested positive for the virus.

This brings the number of confirmed cases in the occupied West Bank to 57, two in the Gaza Strip, and approximately 1,000 in Israel, where one death has been reported.

There are currently about 1,200 Palestinians in 18 different quarantine centers in the Gaza Strip.

West Bank lockdown

Palestinian Authority prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh ordered a two-week lockdown on all Palestinian residents in the occupied West Bank, barring emergencies, to go into effect Sunday night.

Those working in pharmacies, grocery stores, bakeries and healthcare facilities are exempted from the lockdown.

Shtayyeh’s decision has no bearing on some 800,000 Israeli settlers living in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. The settlers share certain roads, grocery stores and gas stations with Palestinians.

Unlike Palestinians, settlers are free to move in and out of Israel as they please, subject only to restrictions imposed by Israeli authorities.

As part of the PA’s emergency measures, Palestinians will no longer be allowed to work in Israeli settlements.

Some Palestinians defied orders to cease work in settlements last week, citing their need to feed their families.

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of Palestinian laborers are continuing their work inside Israel without being able to return to their homes in the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip.

Israel automatically renewed permits for Palestinian laborers working in Israel, but anyone who returns home will risk losing their permit.

“Defense minister Naftali Bennett decided that only laborers who agree to stay overnight in Israel for two months can continue to work at jobs considered ‘essential,’” Israeli daily Haaretz reported.

For Palestinians, it is a desperate situation. One worker, identified only as Ibrahim, told the Haaretz reporter, “I prefer to be home like the Jews and like you, with a mask. But what will my wife say if we don’t have money? It’s a choice of no-choice.”

Medicine stock “chronically low” in Gaza

Michael Lynk, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the West Bank and Gaza, is urging Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian resistance organization Hamas to deploy all health resources at their disposal to stymie the spread of the pandemic.

The Palestinian Authority run by Mahmoud Abbas exercises limited control in the occupied West Bank, while Hamas runs the interior of the besieged Gaza Strip.

Lynk affirmed that Israel, as the occupying power, is obligated under international law to guarantee basic services and health infrastructure for Palestinians.

Instead, Israel has diminished the capacity of Gaza’s health system and prohibited vital supplies from entering the territory.

Israel has imposed a siege on Gaza’s two million population for the past 13 years and controls the passage of goods in and out of the territory.

Israel bans the import to Gaza of a long list of so-called “dual-use” items which it claims may have military purposes.

These include medical supplies like glycerine and hydrogen peroxide, which is used as a disinfectant.

Israeli rights group Gisha is calling on Israel to suspend its blockade on Gaza and allow all necessary items to enter.

Gisha cited “an acute shortage in ventilators, ICU beds, medicine and protective equipment available in the Strip in the event of a wider outbreak.”

It added that the Strip is not equipped to handle the pandemic, as its infrastructure is “inadequate even in ‘normal’ times.”

Gaza’s “healthcare system was collapsing even before the pandemic,” UN special rapporteur Lynk stated. “Its stocks of essential drugs are chronically low. Its natural sources of drinkable water are largely contaminated.”

He noted that Gaza’s population is already more vulnerable, “with malnutrition on the rise, poorly controlled non-communicable diseases, dense living and housing conditions, an elderly population without access to proper nursing care and high smoking rates.”

UK-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians has also warned an outbreak in the coastal enclave could be “catastrophic.”

UN humanitarian coordinator Jamie McGoldrick released $1 million in emergency funds to prepare the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip for an outbreak and appealed for more funds.

Prisoners threaten hunger strike

Meanwhile, Palestinians in Israeli prisons are threatening to go on hunger strike at the beginning of April to protest measures by the Israel Prison Service that may expose them to the virus.

Israeli guards reportedly raid prison cells without face masks and protective gear, subjecting detainees to health risks in light of the fast-spreading virus. Prison authorities have also barred visits by family and lawyers.

Last week, Israeli prison authorities withdrew some 140 items from prison commissaries, including food and hygiene products.

Four Palestinian detainees in Megiddo prison in northern Israel were isolated after they came into contact with an Israeli guard who had the coronavirus.

The detainees have not been tested for the virus, however. In order to qualify for testing, prisoners must have come into contact with an infected person and also show symptoms of COVID-19.

Jordan under curfew

Neighboring Jordan meanwhile imposed a full, indefinite curfew on the kingdom starting Saturday. All citizens are required to stay in their homes, barring emergencies, and virtually all businesses are closed.

Jordan’s borders have also been completely closed.

There are 112 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Jordan as of Sunday, with no deaths and one recovery.

The World Health Organization has recorded more than 300,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of Sunday, more than 13,000 of them fatal.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.