Palestinian Authority Shuns Lockdown Despite Fears of Second Coronavirus Wave

Senior official says government leading 'an attempt to achieve herd immunity,' as Palestinian laborers going into Israel and back into the West Bank make it much harder to contain outbreak

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
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A healthcare worker checks the body temperature of Palestinian workers returning from Israel, April 7, 2020.
A healthcare worker checks the body temperature of Palestinian workers returning from Israel, April 7, 2020. Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma / Reuters
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The Palestinian Authority has decided not to impose a lockdown to contain a second wave of coronavirus infection, and to take limited cautionary steps to try and minimize potential damage to the West Bank economy.

Senior Palestinian officials told Haaretz that a key reason behind the decision is the difficulty in containing the outbreak while many Palestinians work in Israel and return to their homes every day.

A senior Palestinian source said the decision is not an official one, and is intended to match the reality on the ground. He said the only restrictions in place are a ban on weddings, mass funerals and Friday prayers at mosques and an insistence upon mask wearing and social distancing. He said that in the absence of any control over the border with Israel, the PA is implementing a policy he calls “an attempt to achieve herd immunity,” without supplying any data on target figures or the chances of achieving them.

During the first wave of coronavirus between March and June, the PA took tough steps to try and prevent the virus from spreading and imposed a general lockdown. These steps were in force during the month of Ramadan through Eid el-Fitr, and were gradually removed when these holidays ended. The return to routine led to a renewed outbreak, with Hebron as its epicenter.

The Palestinian Health Ministry has refrained in the past month from publishing figures about how many are ill in the West Bank and suffices with daily updates. In the past day there were reports of 10 Palestinian deaths, and the number of serious cases in public hospitals reached 47 on Monday, 11 of which are on ventilators. Independent monitors report that there are thus far 42,000 cases within Palestinian Authority areas, and the death toll is close to 350, mostly in the areas of Hebron and East Jerusalem. Some 4,000 to 5,000 tests are conducted each day on those who show symptoms.

Palestinian workers cross through a hole in the separation fence into Israel, September 8, 2020.Credit: Meged Guzni

“Every day seven to 10 people die, but it is still not treated as an epidemic,” a doctor in the Hebron area said, asking not to be identified by Israeli media.

A West Bank medical source said the reasons for leaving the economy open is that the health system can still withstand the situation, which is capable of treating about 200 patients in serious condition and ventilate dozens. “The current data doesn’t call for any drastic measures to hurt the pockets of people who are already suffering from the difficult economic circumstances.”

Akhram Arjoub, head of the Jenin governorate, told Haaretz that the policy of general lockdown has proven ineffective with regard to movement to and from Israel and the modest number of cases prevented. “What is the point of shutting businesses and markets as long as the flow of workers to Israel continues and people in the PA can’t make a living?” he said.

Palestinian health workers carry on a stretcher the body of a woman who died of COVID-19 in Hebron in the West Bank, June 29, 2020. Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma / Reuters

PA Central Bureau of Statistics data shows Palestinian economic activity has dropped 68% since the outbreak of the pandemic, and one in seven breadwinners has been out of work due to the lockdown.

While many in the West Bank differ with the PA’s claims that they are in control of the situation, there is general agreement concerning the ineffectiveness of a lockdown.

“The feeling is that we are using a broom to clean the dust of a quarry,” a social activist in Kafr Aqab, near Jerusalem, said. “Who can prevent 30,000 workers returning from Israel each week from being infected?” He added that the division of the West Bank into areas A, B. and C makes it more difficult to unify the measures needed to enforce restrictions.

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