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Will the coronavirus (COVID-19) quiet the Gaza Strip?

By Yoni Ben Menachem
web posted March 16, 2020

Last week, Israel provided 200 kits to the Gaza Strip to test for the coronavirus.

IDF Maj. Kamil Abu Rokon, Commander for Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), announced: “Preventing the spread of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip and preventing an outbreak in the Judea and Samaria territories are of foremost Israeli interest.”

While PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas took the emergence of the coronavirus in Bethlehem seriously and announced a month-long “emergency situation” in the PA. Hamas, the sovereign in the Gaza Strip, initially treated the idea of a coronavirus breakout in the area with contempt and quickly announced that the Gaza Strip was “clean” of the virus.

Hamas also did not order the checking of Egyptians for the disease as they entered into the Gaza Strip via the Rafah crossing.

However, following pressure from residents, the Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip stated on March 14, 2020, that the Strip was “clean” of the coronavirus. Hamas said they had already tested 19 cases of suspected coronavirus infection in the past few days, and the tests had all come back negative.

Hamas called on the 2,667 residents of the Gaza Strip who have recently returned to Gaza through the Rafah Crossing to maintain home isolation.

Yahya Sinwar, Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, is maintaining a low-profile. His deputy, Khalil al-Hayya, held a press conference with representatives of the different factions and medical personnel in Gaza to announce the closure of the crossings into Egypt and Israel (Rafah and Erez crossings) and the closure of kindergartens and schools. Gatherings or assembly of more than 100 people was also banned.

The political rift between Hamas and the PA and the split between the West Bank and the Gaza Strip preclude the necessary cooperation in the war against the coronavirus.

However, in recent days, since the coronavirus was discovered in the PA and Israel, there has been relative quiet on the Gaza border with Israel regarding the launching of explosive balloons, mortars, and rockets.

Sources in the Gaza Strip say that the quiet is related to the Hamas leadership’s fear of the spread of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip and the resulting dependence on Israel and Egypt in dealing with the pandemic.

Hamas’ medical abilities in the Gaza Strip are minimal, and in the event of the spread of the coronavirus in Gaza, it will be tough to deal with the situation by itself. Hamas understands that in such a scenario, it will not be a choice but rather a necessity to receive assistance from Egypt and Israel to deal with the pandemic.

The refugee camps in the Gaza Strip, with their high population density, overcrowding, and lack of sanitation and hygiene, all have a high potential for the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

According to Hamas sources, the Hamas leadership understands this very well. It will, therefore, keep the borders calm with Israel for the near future, until the situation with regard to the coronavirus pandemic becomes clear.

Palestinian journalist Faiz Abu Shamala, on March 14, 2020, called on the joint military command of the Palestinian factions in the Gaza Strip to announce their organizations’ commitment to calm with Israel in light of the outbreak of the coronavirus and the necessity to cope with this virus.

“We must ensure that no incendiary balloons are launched throughout this humanitarian battle with the coronavirus, and we must demand that the Israeli enemy meet their obligations of calm. The Palestinians are not terrorists but seek to return to their homeland. As long as the enemy is hurt by the coronavirus, we must show mercy to them and maintain the ceasefire, according to Arab customs,” he wrote on his Facebook page.

One of the issues that will require a decision by the various terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip is the “Land Day” event that took place annually on March 31.

According to the original plan, March 31 was supposed to be the date when the “March of Return” against Israel would resume at the border of the Gaza Strip.

However, officials in the Gaza Strip believe that with the spread of the coronavirus and the possibility of it reaching Gaza, the resumption of demonstrations on the Gaza border is likely to be postponed to another date. ESR

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as Director General and Chief Editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

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