The Palestinians and the Spread of Coronavirus

Palestinian police patrol cars in Bethlehem announce the beginning of the lockdown (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).

Palestinian police patrol cars in Bethlehem announce the beginning of the lockdown (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).

Starting to enforce the lockdown of Hebron (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Starting to enforce the lockdown of Hebron (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Palestinian security forces prevent villagers from entering Bethlehem (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).

Palestinian security forces prevent villagers from entering Bethlehem (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).

Starting to enforce the lockdown of Hebron (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Starting to enforce the lockdown of Hebron (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Palestinian security forces prevent villagers from entering Bethlehem (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).

Palestinian security forces prevent villagers from entering Bethlehem (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).

Palestinians security forces erect roadblocks at the entrance to Jenin (Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Palestinians security forces erect roadblocks at the entrance to Jenin (Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Palestinian security forces close the entrances to Ramallah (Facebook page of QudsN, March 23, 2020).

Palestinian security forces close the entrances to Ramallah (Facebook page of QudsN, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrance to Jericho (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrance to Jericho (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrance to Jericho (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrance to Jericho (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrances to Dura, south of Hebron (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrances to Dura, south of Hebron (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrances to Dura, south of Hebron (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrances to Dura, south of Hebron (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).

The center of Hebron (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).

The center of Hebron (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).

Empty streets and shuttered businesses in the wake of the measures recently declared by the Palestinian government. Right: The center of Ramallah (Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Empty streets and shuttered businesses in the wake of the measures recently declared by the Palestinian government. Right: The center of Ramallah (Wafa, March 23, 2020).

The Temple Mount compound, empty of Muslim worshippers (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).

The Temple Mount compound, empty of Muslim worshippers (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).

The last prayer held on the Temple Mount before the announcement of the ministry of Islamic endowments (Palinfo Twitter account, March 22, 2020).

The last prayer held on the Temple Mount before the announcement of the ministry of Islamic endowments (Palinfo Twitter account, March 22, 2020).

Civil defense operatives disinfect public facilities in Khan Yunis (QudsN Facebook page, March 23, 2020).

Civil defense operatives disinfect public facilities in Khan Yunis (QudsN Facebook page, March 23, 2020).

Civil defense operatives disinfect public facilities in Khan Yunis (QudsN Facebook page, March 23, 2020).

Civil defense operatives disinfect public facilities in Khan Yunis (QudsN Facebook page, March 23, 2020).

Hamas military wing operatives disinfect public facilities in the Gaza Strip (Filastin al-A'an, March 24, 2020).

Hamas military wing operatives disinfect public facilities in the Gaza Strip (Filastin al-A'an, March 24, 2020).

Hamas military wing operatives disinfect public facilities in the Gaza Strip (Filastin al-A'an, March 24, 2020).

Hamas military wing operatives disinfect public facilities in the Gaza Strip (Filastin al-A'an, March 24, 2020).

Operatives of Hamas' emergency committee in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City disinfect the police station and one of the neighborhood's sports club (Facebook page of Hamas in eastern al-Zeitoun, March 23, 2020).

Operatives of Hamas' emergency committee in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City disinfect the police station and one of the neighborhood's sports club (Facebook page of Hamas in eastern al-Zeitoun, March 23, 2020).

Operatives of Hamas' emergency committee in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City disinfect the police station and one of the neighborhood's sports club (Facebook page of Hamas in eastern al-Zeitoun, March 23, 2020).

Operatives of Hamas' emergency committee in the al-Zeitoun neighborhood of Gaza City disinfect the police station and one of the neighborhood's sports club (Facebook page of Hamas in eastern al-Zeitoun, March 23, 2020).

Overview[1]

Another Palestinian was found to have coronavirus, a woman who returned from the United States. The number of Palestinians coronavirus patients has risen to 60, 58 in Judea and Samaria and two in the Gaza Strip (no change). So far 17 Palestinians have been discharged from hospitals.

  • The lockdown declared by Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh is enforced by the Palestinian security forces. According to reports, in the PA the streets are almost completely empty, and stores and businesses are closed. Despite warnings issued to vendors, many Palestinians complained of exorbitant prices charged for basic commodities and face masks. The PA announced that stores would remain open and that there was no lack of goods.
  • Following are some developments related to the PA’s relations with Israel in the face of the coronavirus threat:
    • On March 22, 2020, the Palestinian ministry of the treasury received 120 million shekels (a little over $33 million) from Israel as payment of funds which had been the subject of long negotiations and accounting. The PA demanded the release of an additional 650 million shekels (about $180 million), tax revenues deducted by Israel. Moshe Kahlon, the Israeli minister of the treasury, refused to transfer the additional funds.
    • Senior Palestinian figures strongly demanded that Israel release the Palestinian security prisoners, or at least the ones with chronic ailments, and the young prisoners. Senior Palestinian figures, on behalf of Mahmoud Abbas, appealed to the International Red Cross and the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding the Palestinians’ demands.
    • Israeli media reports about the lack of sleeping arrangements in Israel for Palestinian workers have led to strong criticism and protests from the PA government. The government spokesman also claimed that the Palestinian workers’ places of employment in Israel had turned into “coronavirus incubation centers” (a claim with no basis in fact).
  • In the Gaza Strip the number of Palestinians with coronavirus remains steady at two. According to reports they have mild cases and are in a quarantine center. The Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip and Hamas operatives continue implementing a variety of preventive measures: the crossings are closed, public places are disinfected, 400 prisoners were released from jail, quarantine units are being constructed (200 units in the northern Gaza Strip have been completed), and there is coordination between Hamas and Egypt (including the exchange of information about coronavirus patients). However, Hamas has not yet imposed a complete lockdown on the Gaza Strip as planned by the PA.

In view of the coronavirus, two recent statements assign Israel responsibility for the situation in the Gaza Strip: Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the Gazan ministry of health, claimed Israel is responsible for the health and humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, and called on the UN as well to accept responsibility (Palestine Online, March 22, 2020); Khalil al-Haya, deputy chairman of the Hamas political bureau, claimed Israel would be responsible if the coronavirus spread in the Gaza Strip (Hamas website, March 23, 2020). In ITIC assessment, such claims are liable to provide justification for the use of violent measures against Israel if Hamas loses control of the spread of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip (which has not yet happened).

The Palestinian Authority (PA)
Palestinians ill with the coronavirus: an overview
  • On March 24, 2020, Ibrahim Melhem, spokesman for the PA government, reported that the number of Palestinians coronavirus patients had risen to 60, after a Palestinian woman from Ramallah, who had returned from the United States, was found to be infected (the number includes the two coronavirus patients in the Gaza Strip). The distribution of coronavirus patients is as follows: 40 in the Bethlehem district, 17 of whom have recovered; two in the Tulkarm district; 12 in the Ramallah district; one in Nablus, one in the Salfit district; one in Hebron, one in quarantine in Jericho.
Measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus
  • Following the increased severity of preventive measures declared by PA Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh on March 22, 2020, according to reports the streets are almost completely empty, with very few people outside, and businesses are closed. The Palestinian security forces erected many barriers at the entrances to the Palestinian cities to prevent movement between districts and to keep villagers from entering the cities (Wafa and Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020). The Palestinian security forces enforce the lockdown of the main cities and disinfect public facilities (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).
  • In most of the towns and villages, including those in Area C, the residents appointed social committees to direct movement at their entrances. One of the committee coordinators of the village of Bayt Laqia (west of Ramallah) in Area C said that an emergency committee had been appointed under the sponsorship of the local council to implement the decisions of Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh. He said the emergency committee had closed the village’s secondary entrances, allowing passage only through the main entrance, and only for emergencies (al-Hadath, March 23, 2020).

 Palestinian police patrol cars in Bethlehem announce the beginning of the lockdown (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).
Palestinian police patrol cars in Bethlehem announce the beginning of the lockdown
(Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).

Palestinian security forces prevent villagers from entering Bethlehem (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).     Palestinian security forces prevent villagers from entering Bethlehem (Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).
Palestinian security forces prevent villagers from entering Bethlehem
(Facebook page of Wafa, March 22, 2020).

Right: Palestinian security forces close the entrances to Ramallah (Facebook page of QudsN, March 23, 2020). Left: Palestinians security forces erect roadblocks at the entrance to Jenin (Wafa, March 23, 2020).

Roadblocks at the entrance to Jericho (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).     Roadblocks at the entrance to Jericho (Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).
Roadblocks at the entrance to Jericho
(Facebook page of Wafa, March 23, 2020).
The center of Hebron (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).    Empty streets and shuttered businesses in the wake of the measures recently declared by the Palestinian government. Right: The center of Ramallah (Wafa, March 23, 2020).
Empty streets and shuttered businesses in the wake of the measures recently declared by the Palestinian government. Right: The center of Ramallah (Wafa, March 23, 2020). Left: The center of Hebron (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).
  • On the evening of March 22, 2020, the ministry of Islamic endowments on the Temple Mount announced the temporary closing of the Temple Mount compound to Muslim worshippers. That was done after consultation with medical and religious authorities to prevent the spread of coronavirus (Ma’an, March 22, 2020).
The Palestinian workers in Israel
  • At a press conference held on March 24, 2020, Ibrahim Melhem, spokesman for the PA government, denounced what he called the “racist” measures taken by Israel, the IDF and Israeli employers against Palestinian workers. He said the workers were given poor sleeping places and that workers are fired as soon as they become ill. He also claimed, falsely, that Israeli places of employment had become “incubators of the coronavirus epidemic.” He stressed that the PA was concerned about the Palestinian workers, and would take care of them and be responsible for them (Wafa, March 24, 2020).
Palestinian workers try to cross into Israel after the lockdown was imposed on the PA territories (Palestine Online Twitter account, March 23, 2020).    Palestinian workers try to cross into Israel after the lockdown was imposed on the PA territories (Palestine Online Twitter account, March 23, 2020).
Palestinian workers try to cross into Israel after the lockdown was imposed on the PA territories (Palestine Online Twitter account, March 23, 2020).
Public criticism of exorbitant prices
  • On March 22, 2020, the PA national ministry of economy issued a list of the maximum prices that could be charged for flour, bread, rice, meat, sugar, vegetable oil and eggs. The ministry warned vendors not to raise their prices, threatening that those who did would be punished: their stores would be closed, the issue would be turned over to the attorney general for the fight against economic crime and their names would be added to a “blacklist” (Wafa, March 22, 2020).
  • However, despite the warning, many Palestinians complained of being charged exorbitant prices for basic commodities (al-Hadath, March 22, 2020). The ministry of the economy reported that it had dealt with more than 100 complaints regarding high prices, especially of cooking oil. According to a ministry report, local residents rushed to empty the shelves despite that it had been determined the stores would remain open and that there were quantities sufficient to satisfy all needs (Wafa, March 23, 2020).
  • Following the report, a video was posted to the social networks showing local residents protesting the increase in prices and the fact that the PA was not doing enough to stop it. One Palestinian claimed that a face mask costing three shekels (less than $1) was sold to him for 10 shekels (more than $3). Another complained that the price of vegetables had increased. Social network users were asked to forward the video in order to embarrass the PA (QudsN Facebook page, March 24, 2020).

A Palestinian complains about the increase in the price of masks (QudsN Facebook page, March 24, 2020).
A Palestinian complains about the increase in the price of masks
(QudsN Facebook page, March 24, 2020).

The banking system
  • On March 22, 2020, the Palestinian monetary authority instructed the banks to continue providing basic services to companies so as not to harm imports and exports. The services will be provided by one branch in every city between the hours of 10:00 and 13:00. However, the banks will no longer provide teller service but will continue to provide electronic services and ensure a supply of money in the ATMs (Wafa, March 22, 2020).
Transfer of 120 million shekels from Israel to the PA
  • The Israeli media reported that on March 19, 2020, Moshe Kahlon, the Israeli minister of the treasury, authorized the transfer of 120 million shekels (a little over $33 million) to the PA in the wake of the coronavirus, among other reasons because of requests from the defense establishment. According to the reports the funds are excess tax revenues collected by Israel for the PA, and have been the subject of negotiations and accounting for a long period of time. Kahlon reached an agreement with the PA minister of the treasury, Shukri Bshara, according to which Israel would transfer the funds to the PA as part of “cleaning the slate” of all the financial accountings between Israel and the PA. However, Kahlon reportedly refused to release an additional 650 million shekels (about $180 million) of Palestinian tax revenues frozen by Israel in accordance with the law to cut the salaries of Palestinian terrorists (Israeli TV Channel 13, March 22, 2020).
  • Abd al-Rahman Bayatna, spokesman for the PA ministry of the treasury, confirmed that on March 22, 2020, Israel had credited the ministry’s account with 120 million shekels. He said Shukri Bshara, the minister of the treasury, had demanded that his counterpart, Moshe Kahlon, transfer 1.047 billion shekels (about $290 million) that Israel allegedly owes the Palestinians. Of that sum, 650 million shekels are from tax revenues Israel cut from the money it transfers to the Palestinians (according to the Israeli law enabling it to cut sums identical to those the Palestinian government pays to the families of the Palestinian terrorist shaheeds, wounded and prisoners). The remainder of the sum is related to discrepancies in accounting from previously-collected tax revenues (al-Ayam, March 23, 2020).
  • Ibrahim Melhem, spokesman for the PA government, said the revenues are Palestinian money. He said the Palestinians demand the money be transferred in view of the current global financial crisis. He added that contacts have been held to realize the Palestinians’ right to the money held by Israel (Wafa, March 22, 2020).
Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel
  • Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh exploited the spread of coronavirus in Israel to demand the release of Palestinian terrorists imprisoned in Israel. They assigned Israel full responsibility for the prisoners’ welfare. Muhammad Shtayyeh posted a demand for the release of the prisoners to his Facebook page, especially prisoners who were ill and suffering from chronic ailments, as well as children (Wafa, March 14 and 22, 2020; Facebook page of Muhammad Shtayyeh, March 14, 2020).
  • Saeb Erekat, secretary of the PLO’s Executive Committee, and Qudri Abu Bakr, chairman of the authority for prisoners and released prisoners’ affairs, were sent by Mahmoud Abbas to meet with David Keane, chairman of the International Red Cross delegation, and Gerald Rockenschaub, director of the WHO in “Palestine.” They demanded the immediate intervention of the two organizations to protect the health of the Palestinian prisoners in Israel. They also claimed [alleged] medical negligence by the Israeli prison service (Wafa, March 17, 2020).
  • Saeb Erekat said they had formally appealed to the WHO and International Red Cross as instructed by Mahmoud Abbas, demanding first of all the release of prisoners who were ill, aged, children and women, in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Their objectives are to reduce prison overcrowding and to provide Palestinian prisoners with means for cleaning and disinfecting themselves. He added both organizations said they would make every effort, but so far no answer had been received (al-Najah news website, March 23, 2020).
  • The Israeli Prison Service issued a number of reports about its coping with the coronavirus crisis. According to the reports, for several weeks the prison staffs have been using videos in several languages to explain the coronavirus situation to the prisoners. They have also used signs and other information materials. All the prisons are disinfected daily with chlorine bleach and other cleaning materials; disinfectants and other hygiene materials are regularly distributed to every cell; the medical teams in the prisons have been increased; and designated prison wings have been prepared for inmates suspected of being ill or needing quarantine (YouTube channel of the Israeli Prison Service, March 20, 2020).
  • The Israeli Prison Service rejected claims from foreign sources that a number of security prisoners in the Megiddo jail had coronavirus. According to the Prison Service, there are no inmates in the Megiddo jail or any Israeli prison who are ill with coronavirus. In the Megiddo jail four inmates, none of whom was showing symptoms of the disease, were quarantined after they had come in contact with a person with the virus the previous week (website of the Israeli Prison Service, March 19, 2020).
  • However, Abu Obeida, spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, said the organizations in the Gaza Strip’s joint operations room had held consultations to find “proper measures” to take in view of the [alleged] serious development, which endangers the prisoners’ health (Ma’an, March 19, 2020).
The Gaza Strip
The current coronavirus infection situation

The number of Palestinians with the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip is still two. Salama Maarouf, chairman of the government’s information bureau in the Gaza Strip, said at his daily news briefing that any one who came in contact with the two Palestinians ill with coronavirus had been quarantined. Among those in quarantine were General Tawfiq Abu Na’im, commander of the national security forces, and his deputy, General Muhammad Abu Watfa (Dunia al-Watan, March 22, 2020). Iyad al-Buzum, spokesman for the ministry of the interior, said their condition was good. He said they continued working from the quarantine center and were in contact with the ministry’s senior figures (website of the ministry of the interior, March 23, 2020).

  • Ashraf al-Qidra, spokesman for the ministry of health in the Gaza Strip, said in a briefing that Yusuf Abu al-Rish, deputy minister of health, had met with Gerald Rockenschaub, director of the WHO in “Palestine,” who entered the Gaza Strip through the Erez Crossing. The meeting was held to interact with all the relevant groups to help provide services to support the fight against the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip. Ashraf al-Qidra said Israel was responsible for the health and humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip. He also called on the UN to take responsibility and to rush to provide for the its urgent medical needs (Palestine Online, March 22, 2020).
Measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus
  • Iyad al-Buzum, spokesman for the ministry of the interior in the Gaza Strip, announced the measures that had been taken since the discovery that two Gazans were ill with the virus. He said the police were monitoring the situation in the markets. He warned against hoarding and charging exorbitant prices, adding that one vendor had already been detained for raising prices. In addition, three people had been detained for spreading rumors and incorrect information about the virus.
  • Iyad al-Buzum added that the police continued to secure 21 quarantine centers in the Gaza Strip (where there were 1,399 people, according to the ministry of health spokesman in the Gaza Strip). He said the crossings would remain closed, with the exception of emergency medical cases that could not be returned and were put into quarantine. In addition, unlimited vacations were given to 400 prisoners jailed for infractions classified as minor (website of the ministry of the interior in the Gaza Strip, March 23, 2020).
  • The following are additional measures taken by the Hamas administration:
    • The ministry of health in the Gaza Strip announced that as of March 23, 2020, activity at all out-patient clinics in the hospitals would cease, non-urgent operations would not be performed at any ministry of health hospital. It was also forbidden to visit hospitalized patients (Dunia al-Watan, March 22, 2020).
    • The ministry of agriculture in the Gaza Strip announced that the agricultural sector would continue its full operations. He called on the Gazans not to panic and not to hoard food, because there was no fear of shortages (al-Ra’i, March 23, 2020).
    • On March 22, 2020, UNRWA announced the temporary suspension of the distribution of food to the residents of the Gaza Strip until a safer way could be found to distribute it (al-Andalou News, March 23, 2020).
Public institutions and educational institutions closed in the Gaza Strip (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).     Public institutions and educational institutions closed in the Gaza Strip (Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).
Public institutions and educational institutions closed in the Gaza Strip
(Palinfo Twitter account, March 23, 2020).
Hamas activity
  • Khalil al-Haya, deputy chairman of the Hamas political bureau, said Hamas, along with the governmental agencies, was following the activity for preventing the spread of coronavirus. He added that Hamas supported every preventive measure and the obligatory quarantine of everyone returning to the Gaza Strip through the crossings. Hamas, he said, was in constant contact with the governmental agencies and the donor states to increase the circle of supporters for weaker groups, which had recently been joined by thousands of people.
  • According to Khalil al-Haya, Hamas maintains constant contact with Egypt to coordinate the activities of the [Rafah] Crossing and to exchange information about patients suspected of having been infected by coronavirus. He added that Hamas had completed the construction of 200 quarantine units of the planned 1000 in the northern and southern Gaza Strip, whose construction was begun in coordination with governmental agencies. Al-Haya said Israel would be responsible if coronavirus spread in the Gaza Strip (Hamas website, March 23, 2020).
Aerial photographs of the hospital for coronavirus patients in Rafah (Palinfo Twitter account, March 24, 2020)     Aerial photographs of the hospital for coronavirus patients in Rafah (Palinfo Twitter account, March 24, 2020)
Aerial photographs of the hospital for coronavirus patients in Rafah
(Palinfo Twitter account, March 24, 2020)
Yahya al-Sinwar, head of the Hamas political bureau in the Gaza Strip visits the construction site in Rafah where the hospital is being built for coronavirus patients (Palestine Online Twitter account, March 23, 2020).   Yahya al-Sinwar, head of the Hamas political bureau in the Gaza Strip visits the construction site in Rafah where the hospital is being built for coronavirus patients (Palestine Online Twitter account, March 23, 2020).
Yahya al-Sinwar, head of the Hamas political bureau in the Gaza Strip visits the construction site in Rafah where the hospital is being built for coronavirus patients (Palestine Online Twitter account, March 23, 2020).
Aid from Qatar for the Gaza Strip
  • The emir of Qatar donated $150 million for six months to support the Gaza Strip as support for aid programs and UN humanitarian programs in the Gaza Strip, and for the struggle against the spread of coronavirus (Twitter account of the Qatari News Agency, March 22, 2020). Isma’il Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ political bureau, issued an announcement thanking Qatar for its support (Hamas website, March 22, 2020).

[1] Update for the ITIC March 22, 2020, bulletin, "The Coronavirus in the Palestinian Authority (PA) Territories and the Gaza Strip (Updated to March 22, 2020)."