President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas has declared a state of emergency in the West Bank for 30 days in an attempt to “confront the risks resulting from the coronavirus”.
The decree came into force Friday morning. It enforced a two-week moratorium on West Bank hotels accepting foreign guests and orders religious, educational and other institutions to close.
PA Prime Minister Mohamad Shtayyeh said that the statement envisaged a lockdown of Palestinian society and that movement between cities in the West Bank would be limited to necessary traffic.
The PA confirmed seven cases of coronavirus on Thursday in Bethlehem. They are the first to be identified in the West Bank.
Palestinian minister Mai al-Kaila said in a statement that “they are not being treated in quarantine.”
AFP reported that the seven were staff at a Bethlehem hotel, where two Greek nationals, who later tested positive for coronavirus, had stayed in late February.
The Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, was closed Thursday afternoon as antiseptic teams moved in to disinfect the Church for the second time since the coronavirus outbreak began.
Asbed Balian, the senior cleric of the Armenian Church at the Church of the Nativity, told AFP that infected visitors had entered the holy site.
It is weeks until Easter, the busiest time of the year for both Bethlehem’s tourism industry the mainstay of the city’s economy.
The Church welcomes some 10,000 tourists and pilgrims a day, and hosts tens of thousands more during Easter celebrations.
Major sporting events such as the Palestine Marathon – scheduled for March 27 – have been cancelled.
Elias al-Arja, the head of the Bethlehem hotel owners union, accused authorities of panicking. “This will cause huge damage to the economy. We have 3,000 workers in the tourist sector and they will all go home. Who is going to feed their families?” he told AFP.
Bethlehem mayor Anton Suleiman accepted that the move would harm his city’s economy, but stressed that “public safety is the most important thing to us”.
The Palestinian Authority exercises limited authority over areas of the West Bank under the Oslo Accords.
Israeli and Palestinian health officials met on Thursday to coordinate their responses to the virus.
Israel, as of Thursday, had 17 confirmed cases and has banned people from entering from a host East Asian and Western European countries.
COGAT, the Israeli body that is responsible for Palestinian civilian matters in the West Bank, said that it had delivered 250 coronavirus testing kits to the PA and that it was coordinating joint-training for Israeli and Palestinian medical workers.
Coronavirus has disrupted religious worship across the Middle East. Saudi Arabia banned pilgrimages to Mecca, while Iran has cancelled Friday prayer in major cities.
Israel, however, has said that there are no special precautions being taken at the Western Wall in Jerusalem although authorities had placed hand sanitising stations at the site.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Western Wall, encouraged pilgrims to come and pray there, saying that, “In this time of distress, there is nothing more appropriate.”
Around 3,740 cases have been confirmed across the Middle East.
More than 95,000 people have been infected and more than 3,200 have died worldwide from the virus, which was first detected in central China in December.