Health officials in the Gaza Strip are sounding the alarm after two cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in the besieged territory. The densely populated strip announced its first confirmed cases of COVID-19 March 22.
“We are more concerned now than we have been by the Israeli military attacks over the past 20 years,” Dr. Abdullatif al-Haj, an official in Gaza’s Ministry of Health, told Al-Monitor. “Our already fragile health system cannot survive,” said Haj.
According to the Hamas-controlled Ministry of Health, two Palestinian men who had recently returned from Pakistan and entered Gaza through Egypt have contracted the virus. Both are in stable condition and under quarantine in the town of Rafah near the Egyptian border, officials said.
Hamas, which rules Gaza, has introduced a series of new restrictions including the closure of schools and restaurants, a ban on large gatherings and the suspension of Friday prayers in mosques. Hospitals, schools and hotels have been designated quarantine centers and are currently housing some 1,200 travelers who have recently returned from abroad.
According to The Jerusalem Post, Hamas is calling for “Palestinian unity at the national level” in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. The newspaper reports Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem urged Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas to lift economic sanctions imposed on the Gaza Strip in 2017.
In a statement, Hamas said it “invited Palestinian factions and the Ministry of Health to contribute to the fight against COVID-19.”
Experts previously warned an outbreak of COVID-19 in the tiny enclave of some 2 million people, many of whom live in crowded refugee camps, would present a massive challenge for Gaza’s health care system. Military conflict with Israel, internal political instability and a 13-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade have left hospitals overburdened and understaffed.
According to Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Gaza’s hospitals are equipped with just 70 intensive care unit beds and face a shortage of oxygen devices and protective equipment.
In Israel, where coronavirus cases surged to 1,238 on March 23, authorities have already taken sweeping measures to further restrict the movement of Palestinians entering the country. Over the weekend, the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, which coordinates Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories, announced the closure of all border crossings to Gaza and the West Bank.
“The health of all citizens in the region stands above all and is our top priority,” Maj. Yotam Shefer, head of the international department of the civil administration, said on Twitter. “We will continue in collaboration with the [PA] in a joint effort to eradicate the continuous spread of the virus."
Officials in the West Bank announced March 22 a mandatory two-week isolation period for residents. Palestinian health officials have so far confirmed 53 cases of the coronavirus.