Palestinian Authority eases lockdown measures as coronavirus cases decline

Given lack of other options, authorities used restrictions as main tool to fight pandemic

Palestinians  at a market  in  the West Bank city of Ramallah, after the authorities relaxed some of the restrictive measures that had been imposed  to stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus.  Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

Palestinians at a market in the West Bank city of Ramallah, after the authorities relaxed some of the restrictive measures that had been imposed to stem the spread of the Covid-19 virus. Photograph: Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

 

The Palestinian Authority has eased lockdown measures in the West Bank following a steady decline in coronavirus cases.

Civil servants have returned to their jobs, businesses, cafes and restaurants have reopened and services are resuming in mosques and churches. Worship is set to resume on Sunday in al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the same city and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem have already reopened.

Insisting that social distancing restrictions must be maintained, prime minister Mohammad Shatayyeh said the easing of restrictions and “gradual return to normal life” were being introduced with caution. He warned that increased infections could lead to the reinstatement of restrictions.

Since early March, Palestine has recorded a total of 446 Covid-19 infections and three deaths, including 55 cases and one death in Hamas-ruled Gaza, where restrictions were eased at the end of April. The Palestinian population of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is 2.8 million, while Gaza’s population is 2 million.

Due to the closure of entrances from Egypt and Israel and strict quarantine of the few people allowed into Gaza, it had only 20 cases and no fatalities until last week, when 35 cases and one death took place after 1,500 Gazans arrived from Egypt.

In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) waited to lift lockdown and remove checkpoints set up to curb movement among cities in order to discourage extended families from gathering during the fasting month of Ramadan and its concluding celebrations.

With limited testing capacity, protection gear and care facilities, Palestinian authorities had no option but to use lockdown as its main tool for containing Covid-19.

The decision to relax coronavirus restrictions followed Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas’s vow that the PA would end security co-operation with Israel and terminate all agreements with Israel if the new government implements its pledge to annex portions of the West Bank and the Jordan Valley.

His threat is impossible to carry out. West Bankers have to pass through Israeli checkpoints when travelling from place to place and have to obtain Israeli permission to visit Jerusalem. All food, fuel, medical, and consumer imports Palestinians receive transit through Israel, which controls access to the West Bank and Gaza from and, sea and air.

Mr Abbas has threatened 11 times in recent years to cut Palestinian security contacts and co-ordination with Israeli and US agencies, leaving Israel and Israelis open to attacks by Palestinians who could be identified by the authority’s intelligence apparatus.

However, Israel can respond by closing borders to Jordan and Egypt, halting the flow of goods, and preventing Palestinians from reaching jobs in Israel and West Bank Israeli settlements. Palestinians are permanently locked-in.