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Lockdown in West Bank, crowds in Gaza: Palestinians divided over coronavirus

GAZA/WEST BANK (Reuters) - Political and physical divisions between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have induced two very different responses to the coronavirus pandemic, with a strict lockdown in the first and crowds milling about freely in the second.

Footprints are seen on a beach during sunset amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the northern Gaza Strip April 8, 2020. Picture taken April 8, 2020. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

In the Israeli-occupied West Bank, which has 250 recorded cases of the COVID-19 lung disease, a lockdown on public life was swiftly imposed - Bethlehem was sealed off after the first outbreak in March and a state of emergency declared.

But in the Gaza Strip, a densely populated coastal enclave, there have been few restrictions on movement and people packed into public markets and beaches, with few wearing masks against the risk of coronavirus contagion.

Forty km (25 miles) apart and separated by Israel, the West Bank and Gaza have no direct link between them.

Gaza, measuring 375 sq km (145 square miles), is home to around two million Palestinians. Since 2007 it has been under the control of the Islamist militant group Hamas, bitter rivals of President Mahmoud Abbas’s more secular Palestinian Authority whose power base is in the West Bank.

Smaller and poorer, Gaza has for years been under a blockade by Israel, which cites security concerns to stop weapons and money reaching Hamas. Gazans say the blockade has crippled their economy and undermined the development of medical facilities, weakening their ability to face a pandemic.

But the geographical isolation that Gazans chafe against may also have helped stem the entry of the new coronavirus, with only 13 reported cases. All are at quarantine facilities.

Slideshow ( 13 images )

Hamas says health conditions make a full lockdown unnecessary in Gaza, but it has closed schools, mosques and wedding halls and banned large street gatherings.

However, public markets remained busy this week. “We will stay home (to avoid coronavirus) when they give us money, food, aid and diapers, our children want to eat,” greengrocer Ahmed Al-Nahal said in the Beach Camp market.

But many fear disaster if the coronavirus penetrates further into the teeming Mediterranean enclave.

Scenes of crowds on beaches last weekend provoked criticism on social media, prompting Hamas to deploy police along the coast urging people not to gather.

“I kept my mouth shut last week but I’m genuinely concerned for Gaza, my family and people here,” Gaza journalist Omar Ghraieb tweeted. “Do we think we are invincible?”

Eyad Al-Bozom, a Hamas interior ministry spokesman, said: “We will not hesitate to impose a curfew if we have to...We are taking necessary decisions in accordance with our daily evaluation.”

The reaction has been different in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule over around 3 million Palestinians living alongside Israeli settlements and military bases.

President Abbas ordered tight restrictions that left some West Bank towns nearly deserted except for shoppers going to groceries and pharmacies.

Some flouted the lockdown, prompting security forces to seize their cars, and to intervene last week after hundreds of government employees gathered outside banks to draw salaries.

Palestinian labourers also angered the authorities after reports that they had become infected in Israel then sneaked back into the West Bank, bypassing Israel’s military barriers and Palestinian health officials.

“There are health measures that must be heeded to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.” said Ghassan Nimer, a Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman.

Additional reporting by Zainah El-Haroun in Ramallah. Writing by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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