Fear of Coronavirus Outbreak Grows in West Bank Ahead of Workers’ Return From Israel

Palestinian health minister says height of COVID-19 threat expected to begin Tuesday night and last until April 23, after the Passover holiday, when workers return to jobs in Israel

Jack Khoury
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A Palestinian worker is swabbed by a medical worker for coronavirus upon his return from Israel, at Tarqumiya checkpoint near Hebron, West Bank, March 24, 2020.
A Palestinian worker is swabbed by a medical worker for coronavirus upon his return from Israel, at Tarqumiya checkpoint near Hebron, West Bank, March 24, 2020.Credit: MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/ REUTERS
Jack Khoury

In the West Bank there is an increasing fear of a coronavirus outbreak due to the imminent return of thousands of Palestinian workers from their jobs in Israel over the Passover holiday. Another source of anxiety is the recent sample tests in which some Palestinians tested positive for the virus.

Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai Kaila said Monday that the height of the outbreak is expected to begin Tuesday night and last until April 23, after the Passover holiday.

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Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

The Palestinian Health Ministry said the number of people infected in the West Bank has increased to 240. Sixteen were discovered in the past 24 hours – workers from the Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron areas. Of the 240 infected people, four are on respirators and all the others are in mild condition, said Dr. Kamal Shakhra, who heads the PA Health Ministry’s efforts agains the virus.

Shakhra noted several communities in the Jerusalem area as being dangerous. He called on residents there not to leave the house at all. Shakhra also said coronavirus cases were discovered in random tests throughout the West Bank, raising fears that the number of those infected is larger than the official tally, even before the workers’ return from Israel. The Palestinian leadership says there is a shortage of testing kits, so a limited number of tests is being conducted, mainly on people with symptoms.

The PA said all workers who return from Israel will be obligated to take an initial health test, and if there are early symptoms they will be sent for a coronavirus test.

For their part, these workers fear either losing their source of income or of becoming infected.

Ahmed, a construction worker in the Tel Aviv area, did not conceal his anxiety. He explained to Haaretz the dilemma for Palestinians who work in Israel: “On the one hand they don’t want to lose their livelihood, and on the other they want to return home, and in the face of all that you encounter an atmosphere of hostility and suspicion that you’re ill, as though we have become lepers, and that’s very hard. We’re the weakest link in this entire situation, and therefore we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, and we still haven’t mentioned the fear of losing our jobs.”

The governor of the Salfit district, Gen. Abdullah Kamil, told Nazareth-based Radio Ashams that returning workers will be required to go into quarantine even if they are asymptomatic, and that those returning will also receive explanatory material stressing the need for quarantine for their own welfare and that of their families and surroundings.

PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has explained in recent days that the government would allocate compounds and hotels along with hospitals that will be designated for quarantine when necessary.

One of the challenges facing the PA is the return of workers in an disorganized manner via random crossings in the hope of avoiding quarantine.

An official in the Palestinian security services told Haaretz that intelligence personnel, including the PA Preventive Security Service, are working both openly and covertly to locate workers who have violated quarantine or tried to avoid being tested.

“This creates a great deal of tension with the workers, and within the communities. We are encountering a phenomena of a family member reporting on a relative who returned from Israel and did not get tested or is not keeping the quarantine. This is a sensitive issue that is creating tension that could erupt even to the point of a quarrel in the hamula [extended family],” he said.

The PA explains that the main difficulty is in the West Bank’s Areas B and C, where there is no open presence of the Palestinian police and security forces, and therefore they are being assisted by local citizens’ groups setting up roadblocks at the entrances to the communities. This often creates conflicts at the site between members of the forces and the residents.

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