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PA, Israel See Jump in Coronavirus Cases

PA, Israel See Jump in Coronavirus Cases

Experts tie ‘second wave’ to lack of commitment, awareness among citizens eager to get back to normal life

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority are urgently exploring ways to control a marked rise in infections before things get out of control.

More than 24,000 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Israel, while on the Palestinian side, there have been more than 2,000 cases. Decision-makers say the current “second wave” of infections is mainly the result of citizens’ noncompliance with safety measures set out by the respective health ministries.

The city of Bethlehem instituted a 48-hour lockdown, starting at 6 am on Monday, to contain the virus. It was the second time that the PA has ordered the closure of the city, which witnessed the first cases in the Palestinian territories on March 5.

Mayor Anton Salman told The Media Line that the current situation was not unexpected; he blamed it in large part on the free movement of Palestinian workers from Israel, who then spread the virus to their cities and villages.

“The other aspect of the dangerous situation has to do with the large gatherings by citizens, in particular at weddings, where most cases came from people mixing in social events, and not from abroad,” Salman said.

He pointed out that public markets had been open and sick people had mixed with other citizens, also contributing to the jump in the number of cases.

Salman said that Bethlehem’s economy had already been essentially closed, given that it relied on tourism that had completely stopped since the beginning of the global pandemic. “All tourist facilities are closed and were affected negatively since the start of the crisis; the economy of Bethlehem is different in its leading elements and components, as it isn’t linked to the domestic economy, but rather to the world economy.”

He added that whether the 48-hour closure would be extended would depend entirely on how the virus spread during the lockdown. “On June 19 we had 27 new cases infected with the coronavirus; we have had about 90 cases in Bethlehem alone since the start of the second wave. Citizens need to understand and realize the danger of the virus; there’s a huge responsibility on them as well,” Salman said.

On June 20, the Palestinian Authority announced the closure of two other cities: Hebron for five days, and Nablus for 48 hours, for the same reasons.

Tayseer Abu Sneineh, the mayor of the West Bank city of Hebron, which is considered the economic capital of the PA, explained to The Media Line that the main reason for the rise in COVID-19 cases was the sudden return of people to normal life, including gatherings at weddings and other social events, without observing precautionary measures mandated by the government, and without oversight or accountability by the responsible authorities.

“Additionally, the full closure that took place in March wasn’t, in my opinion, the right thing to do, as immediately after it was lifted, people went back to normal life as if there wasn’t a pandemic,” Abu Sneineh elaborated. “Rather, the government should have selected sectors [for the lockdown to be relaxed] based on the nature of their work, and gradually closed those sectors that need to be closed. For instance, the construction sector doesn’t need people to interact closely with each other, so it would be really hard to transfer the virus among those who work in this sector.”

He clarified that at the end of the day, citizens needed to work in order to support their families and that therefore a smart and coherent strategy in terms of the closing and opening of sectors was urgently needed. “For instance, I don’t understand why weddings were allowed,” the mayor said.

When asked whether the Hebron municipality was going to take any unilateral steps to counter the deteriorating situation, Abu Sneineh said the city’s role was to conform to the decisions of the PA government, as he believed in the division of powers within the country. “We will continue to provide basic services in terms of water, electricity and collecting waste and other necessary utilities. In the end, the party responsible for taking decisions on closures and other measures is the emergency committee under the governor [of the Bethlehem Governorate], in accordance with the [PA] government.”

However, he stressed that the government should have coordinated and consulted with the municipalities, as they were closer to citizens and their needs. “If they asked us, decisions and their effectiveness would have been different,” Abu Sneineh said.

When reached by The Media Line, the spokesperson of the PA Health Ministry declined to answer questions or to comment on the situation.

The Israeli cabinet on Monday, in a meeting conducted by conference call, decided to reimpose some restrictions on public gatherings.

Until July 9, weddings and bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies (and similar events in other faiths) will continue to be permitted with up to 250 people in attendance. For other events, no more than 50 people may attend.

From July 10 to 31, weddings and bar/bat mitzvah ceremonies (and similar events in other faiths) that take place indoors will be limited to no more than 50% of the capacity of the venue, with no more than 100 persons in attendance.

Events that take place in open areas will continue to be limited to no more than 250 people.

University and college exams will be conducted remotely.

Samir Sobhi Mahamed, the mayor of the Israeli Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, southeast of Haifa, explained to The Media Line that there had been 38 new cases of the virus in his community, all of whom caught it at weddings or funerals. “I expect the number to increase even more every day, because citizens aren’t committed to the instructions of the Ministry of Health,” he said.

Mahamed added that although he understood the need to reopen the economy, it had led to the increase in COVID-19 cases. “I believe that health is no less important than the economy, but the government prioritizes the economy over people’s lives,” he said.

The recent discussion of the government focused on options other than a full closure of businesses, Mahamed said. “We hear in the news that the option of a full closure isn’t even discussed, but our role remains to spread awareness among citizens and monitor their commitment to the safety measures,” he continued.

Mahamed added that the municipality was working to and pressuring competent authorities to reduce the number of social gatherings, especially weddings, or at least to restrict them to a small number of people. “And a decision has been made to limit weddings to 100 people maximum, and we can as a municipality monitor the streets and issue fines to violators,” he said.

Talal al-Krenawi, the mayor of Rahat in Israel’s southern Negev region, clarified to The Media Line that the increase of COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks had to do with people’s normal activity in terms of social gatherings, “especially weddings that included hundreds of citizens all at once.

“Today people need to rethink and reconsider their actions, and commit to all safety measures and instructions, as we can never go back to normal life while we are facing a global pandemic,” he said.

He added that the Israeli government had started to reconsider its decisions to relax the lockdown, “and the Ministry of Health has stepped up its safety procedures and instructions to citizens in public places, as social mixing is the cause of the current situations.”

Meanwhile, the neighboring kingdom of Jordan announced that the spread of the virus was under control, as no new cases had been recorded in days.

Mahmoud Kharabsheh, a lawyer and a former member of the Jordanian parliament, told The Media Line that Amman had succeeded in countering the coronavirus thanks to the activation of the Defense Law, which was designed for emergency situations, by order of King Abdullah ll and with the approval of parliament. “Full powers were given to the prime minister after he was chosen to take the necessary measures, given the danger of the pandemic, of course without touching on the rights of the Jordanian citizens.”

Kharabsheh said that a “crisis cell” was formed of specialists from all relevant fields, to deal with the infected persons and the arrivals from abroad in terms of quarantine, as well as imposing a curfew when needed. “And of course citizens’ awareness and commitment to safety measures have played a major role in controlling the situation.”

The crisis cell included representatives of the Health, Information and Labor ministries, as well of all security bodies and the armed forces, “all of whom worked under direct supervision of King Abdullah ll and the crown prince,” he said.

“Amman was aware that the epidemic is deadly and worked based on that fact, where the cell took brave decisions that helped to stop the spread of the virus, and at the same time, it employed the latest technologies to keep the wheels of the economy and business going,” he said.

Additionally, Kharabsheh pointed to the accurate and consistent work of all parties involved as the reason for the full control of the situation in the country. “And Jordan continues to prohibit any movement through its borders and airports, in addition to controlling all kinds of fake news and rumors,” he said.

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