Crossings Shut, Empty Mosques: Gaza Prepares for the Spread of Coronavirus

A near-hermetic blockade on the Strip means there are no coronavirus cases, although there are severe restrictions and plenty of fear

A man looks through a fence as he waits for Palestinians returning from abroad, Rafa border crossing, Gaza Strip, March 8, 2020.
IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

No cases of the novel coronavirus have been diagnosed yet in the Gaza Strip, but concern is growing over the ramifications of a possible outbreak. Due to the overcrowding in the Strip, the poor state of the healthcare system and the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the Hamas government as well as the public view the prospect of such an outbreak with horror.

Hamas and the civil authorities in Gaza have already taken precautions, including closing the Erez crossing to Israel to entry and exit. Palestinians who have entered the Strip since the outbreak of the virus in Israel have been placed in isolation in temporary housing in the area of the crossings. Over the past few days the Gaza Health Ministry has begun putting up a field hospital at the Rafah crossing. According to b, 63 Gazans are now in quarantine in these buildings, and according to the Gaza Health Ministry 2,667 people are in home isolation.

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The crossings remain open for merchandise and supplies from Israel.

Health officials said that anyone who has entered the Gaza Strip recently has been checked for the virus, and a special laboratory is working around the clock testing samples. People who exhibit symptoms of the disease are also being tested, even if they have not traveled outside the Strip.

Palestinian workers, wearing masks amid coronavirus precautions, bake bread at a bakery in Gaza City, March 8, 2020.
MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

As in the West Bank, all schools and universities are to remain closed until the end of March, and gatherings of more than 100 people are prohibited. The authorities have recommended that older people avoid crowds in enclosed spaces, including mosques.

The meager attendance at Friday prayers reported by local residents showed that many people had heeded the warnings. There were even fewer people at the mosques than during Israeli military offenses, locals said. The Hamas Interior Ministry instructed the police force, with the assistance of Hamas' military wing, to see that all directives, including quarantine, are followed.

Gaza residents told Haaretz that there was palpable fear in the streets as to what lies ahead. “As long as it is still outside the Strip, people are watching tensely,” said Samir Zaqout, an activist at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights. “But if infected people are identified, there is no doubt fear will grow. Everyone here is following the developments like the rest of the world is. The irony is that Gaza is almost hermetically sealed, so as of now, there are no cases and that’s encouraging. We hope it will continue. In Gaza there’s no lack of problems and challenges. We certainly don’t need an epidemic,” Zaqout said.

According to businesspeople, there is still no shortage of food in Gaza, and the healthcare system is functioning. Residents expect that in case of emergency, the Palestinian government in Ramallah and Israel will help the Gaza Strip by providing protective gear and assistance to hospitals.

The head of the Palestinian occupied territories department in Physicians for Human Rights Israel, Ghada Majadleh said: “As of now, preparations in the Gaza Strip for the coronavirus are very minimal. This is not surprising considering the condition of the Palestinian healthcare system in general and in the Strip in particular. It is Israel’s duty to do everything required so that in Gaza they can they will be able to stop the outbreak of the virus.”

Over the weekend, Israel announced that it had sent 200 coronavirus testing kits to Gaza. “Viruses and diseases have no borders – and so prevention of an outbreak of the coronavirus in Gaza, Judea and Samaria are a prime Israeli interest,” said the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

Palestinian Health workers spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus in the Al-omari Mosque in Gaza City, March 12, 2020.
Khalil Hamra,AP