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After bragging about being virus-free, first COVID-19 cases confirmed in Gaza

Palestinians in the Gaza Strip had been shrugging off a lockdown announced by PA, saying Gaza had no virus cases.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gazans had been bragging about having no coronavirus cases — until March 22, that is, when Palestinian health officials confirmed the first two COVID-19 cases in the densely populated coastal enclave. 

The Gaza Health Ministry said two Palestinians who returned from Pakistan and entered Gaza through Egypt tested positive for the virus March 21. They have been in quarantine in the border town of Rafah since they returned March 17.

Earlier this month, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced the start of emergency measures in the Palestinian territories, including the Gaza Strip, and the closure of all education facilities, borders and ports with neighboring countries for 30 days in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. However, the Erez and Rafah crossings in Gaza were not closed.

For its part, fearing the spread of the virus, Israel announced March 22 that it was closing all crossings into Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. Israel had said March 17 that Palestinians entering the country to work would face tight restrictions and would no longer be allowed to move back and forth from the West Bank to Israel, but instead would be sleeping in Israel, with employers providing lodging. 

Palestine was reported to have had 59 cases as of March 22.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank had been committed to the lockdown, while the Hamas-controlled government in Gaza dragged its feet, saying no cases had been recorded. Gaza authorities did decide March 20 to shut restaurants, cafes and reception halls. On March 13, the Hamas-affiliated Governmental Follow-up Committee announced preventive measures, including the closure of schools and border crossings until March 30, and that all returnees ought to stick to home quarantine for 14 days. These measures, however, were mostly shrugged off.

The conflicting actions between the authorities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip divided Palestinians in the coastal enclave into two camps. Some quarantined themselves at home, while others ignored warnings and swarmed into public parks, streets and restaurants.

Some Gazans dubbed the PA emergency measures as the “corona festivities,” as the sight of people in public places resembled festive times. In the municipal park in central Gaza City and the city’s port in the west of the city, many Palestinians have been gathering without masks and have not been following social distancing guidelines. Many told Al-Monitor that they felt safe and reassured since the Ministry of Health in Gaza had not reported report any coronavirus cases. 

The Rafah and Erez crossings have not been closed since Shtayyeh declared the state of national emergency, with travelers moving back and forth from the Gaza Strip, which on March 9 received flocks of pilgrims returning from Saudi Arabia. Riyadh has announced that it has virus cases, as has Egypt. 

Amr Abu Nada, who returned to the Gaza Strip from Egypt on March 11, said he did not undergo any medical examination at the crossing. The crossing management made him sign, along with other returnees, pledges that they need to self-quarantine for 14 days. “No one followed the home quarantine,” Abu Nada told Al-Monitor. 

Another pilgrim, who did not want to be identified, returned March 9 from an umrah trip to Saudi Arabia. The pilgrim told Al-Monitor that travelers had their temperatures checked by representatives of the Health Ministry at the border crossing and were asked to sign pledges to remain for 14 days at home. She also stressed that no one she knew followed the instructions.

She said that some of the pilgrims with her had a high fever and were on fever-reducing medicine before they arrived at the Palestinian crossing as they did not want to undergo comprehensive medical checks or have the Health Ministry force them into quarantine rooms at Rafah. 

The Health Ministry announced through its official webpage that pilgrims were checked at the crossing and were coronavirus-free. 

Meanwhile, a doctor at Al-Aqsa Hospital in central Gaza told Al-Monitor that the facility did not possess adequate testing kits to check those suspected of being infected.

“Unless all citizens in the Gaza Strip undergo adequate testing for coronavirus, it is inaccurate to claim they are not affected. The ministry relied on body temperature only when checking returnees on the border to claim that they are coronavirus-free,” the doctor, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Al-Monitor. 

Mohammad Farhat, an independent journalist, told Al-Monitor that the World Health Organization (WHO) had sent 200 testing kits for examining suspected cases. 

Gaza would be ill-equipped to handle a major outbreak because of its fragile infrastructure.

Farhat said Gaza has generally just been taking routine measures, such as measuring body temperature and blood pressure at the hospital. 

Another instance where Gazans are ignoring PA instructions is the Higher National Commission's March 11 announcement for the Great March of Return to resume along Gaza's border with Israel on March 30, on the occasion of Palestinian Land Day.

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