Palestinians Fear Coronavirus Surge as Workers Return to West Bank From Israel Over Passover

Palestinian prime minister says about 45,000 workers are expected to return, and they will not be allowed back into Israel during the coronavirus crisis

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Workers having their temperature taken before entering a construction site, Tel Aviv, March 30, 2020
Workers having their temperature taken before entering a construction site, Tel Aviv, March 30, 2020Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The Palestinian Authority is bracing for a return of tens of thousands of workers over Passover, amid fears they may add to the incidence of coronavirus infection in the West Bank.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Friday that the next two weeks would be critical with regard to the virus’ spread, citing the anticipated return of some 45,000 workers from Israel over Passover.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

None of those returning to the West Bank will be permitted to resume work in Israel afterwards, and Israel is worried about a possible labor shortage as a result.

Shtayyeh has strongly urged Israeli authorities to test the workers for the coronavirus before they return to the West Bank. But while many would be heading through official crossings, those without valid permits may seek to return via bypass routes, reducing their likelihood of being tested.

A Palestinian Authority medical source told Haaretz that the authority lacks enough coronavirus testing kits to accommodate such a large number of people, which is why there are hopes that Israel will carry out these tests.

The PA may isolate or quarantine workers returning from Israel for 14 days, and has set aside some hotels and other locations as quarantine sites.

Shtayyeh said they are speaking with Israel to regulate the workers’ return. But Israel fears a mass exit by workers ahead of the holiday would hurt certain sectors of the economy, particularly construction. Prior to the spread of the virus, 24 percent of workers in the Israel’s building industry were Palestinian.

Last month Israel's Defense Ministry said that Palestinians interested in working inside Israel must agree not to go back to the West Bank for weeks at a time to avoid a further spread of coronavirus infection. Workers who opt to return home will not be permitted back into Israel for the duration of the decree's enforcement.

The PA says that most of those who have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past week are workers who caught the virus in the Atarot settlement. Most of them were employed by a factory preparing slaughtered chicken for consumption.

Of the 500 people employed there, 41 tested positive for coronavirus and another 250 were put into isolation. The health ministry has since found that none of these 250 workers contracted the coronavirus.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said 18 additional cases of the virus were confirmed in the West Bank on Saturday, with their total number of cases reaching 204. Meanwhile, 12 other cases were diagnosed in Gaza.

Among the newest cases are two children aged 11 and 15, who caught the virus from their father, the Palestinian ministry said. The most recent cases were diagnosed in Beituniya, El Bireh and Katana, north of Jerusalem, as well as in the Tulkarm refugee camp and the Halhoul region near Hebron. The ministry said that a large number of those infected were men who worked in Israel, some of them in a food factory in the Lod area.

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