Coronavirus Spares Gaza, but Travel Restrictions Do Not

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JERUSALEM — There was barely enough space to move on the popular Omar al-Mukhtar street in Gaza City on the eve of the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha as throngs of Palestinians — almost none with masks — crowded into colorful clothing shops and huddled around makeshift food stands.

“If the virus were here, we wouldn’t be so close to each other,” said Saber Siam, 28, a salesman at a clothing store selling imported items from China and Turkey. “You wouldn’t find me holding a customer’s arm or kissing his cheek to encourage him to purchase our clothes.”

The blockaded Gaza Strip might be one of the only places in the world where no cases of community transmission of the coronavirus have been recorded — an achievement attributed to the coastal enclave’s isolation as well as swift measures taken by its militant Hamas rulers.

The pandemic, however, hasn’t left Gaza untouched.

Citing the need to combat the virus, the various governmental authorities controlling the borders of Gaza have imposed new restrictions on movement outside the territory. That has exacerbated an already challenging situation for Palestinians who say they urgently need to travel to Israel and the West Bank, as well as for those wishing to escape the bleak economic reality by emigrating by way of Egypt.

In March, fearing the potentially disastrous consequences of an outbreak in Gaza, Hamas authorities ordered all travelers returning to the territory by way of Israel and Egypt to enter quarantine facilities for three weeks. They could not leave quarantine until they had passed two virus tests.

The system seems to have succeeded, sparing Gaza’s health sector, already devastated by years of war and conflict, from additional strain. Medical officials detected all 78 known infections in the territory at quarantine facilities.

Still, experts did not rule out the possibility of the pandemic penetrating into the area’s densely populated cities and towns.

“All it takes is one small mistake,” said Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the World Health Organization’s mission to the Palestinians. “There’s no guarantee the virus won’t get inside.”

Mr. Rockenschaub also warned that Gaza lacked the resources to deal with a widespread outbreak, noting that medical institutions carry only about 100 adult ventilators, most of which are already in use.

Hamas initially instituted other restrictions in Gaza. But it later lifted many of them, enabling residents to follow significant parts of their daily routines. They have been flocking to beaches, working out at gyms, eating at restaurants, praying at mosques and shopping in markets, among other activities.

Source: The article is originally written by Adam Rasgon and Iyad Abuheweila and published by The New York Times, along with the cover photo captioned as: Neveen Zanon, center, a resident of Rafah, has not been able to get permission to visit her father in Nablus, where he is suffering from esophageal cancer.Credit...Fatima Shbair for The New York Times

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