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.

“We’re glad we haven’t had to confront the death we’ve heard about in other countries,” said Moath Abed, 29, an unemployed nurse residing in Gaza City.

Israeli authorities have permitted Palestinians in need of emergency and lifesaving medical treatment to use the Erez crossing — the sole pedestrian passageway between Israel and Gaza.

But they have tightened restrictions on movement for others in the territory, creating problems for people like Munir Sabitan, 53, a resident of Gaza City who works in kitchen installation.

Mr. Sabitan used to visit his wife and three children, who are Arab citizens of Israel, with a merchant’s permit. In March, though, Israel froze those permits as the virus started spreading in its communities.

Now Mr. Sabitan is concerned that he will miss his daughter’s wedding in the Negev desert region if Israel doesn’t soon grant him permission to cross the border.

“The wedding was postponed twice, but it won’t be again,” he said, noting that the new date was Aug. 17. “I feel drained from this experience. My daughter calls everyday and I tell her I’m still waiting for permission.”

Gisha, an Israeli rights group that closely monitors Gaza, appealed to the Israeli authorities on Mr. Sabitan’s behalf, saying they were applying “a double standard” to him because they had allowed immediate family members of other Israelis to fly into the country to participate in weddings, bar mitzvahs and funerals.

“Israel is effectively tightening its closure on Gaza under the guise of the pandemic,” the group said.

The authorities have continued to deny Mr. Sabitan entry, pointing to the pandemic as well as the May decision by the Palestinian Authority, which governs Palestinians in the West Bank, to halt coordination with Israel to protest Israel’s threats to annex parts of the West Bank.

Among the matters that the authority will not coordinate on are travel permits for Palestinians in Gaza, making it harder to apply for them.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli Defense Ministry arm responsible for issuing permits to Palestinians, declined to comment on specific cases. But it said it has been working “around the clock” to “provide the best and most appropriate response” for Gaza’s needs.

“We note that the narrowing down of movement through the Erez crossing for exceptional medical and humanitarian cases is solely meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus,” it said.

Iyad al-Bozom, the spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said that since the pandemic, authorities in Gaza have allowed Palestinians with valid Israeli permits and “urgent travel needs” to leave the enclave through Erez. He said that if Mr. Sabitan receives a permit, he would be able to exit the territory.

For the same reasons, Neveen Zanon, 41, a resident of Rafah, has also not been able to get permission to visit her father in Nablus, where he is suffering from esophageal cancer.

“He barely has enough energy to speak on the phone,” she said. “I’m worried he won’t be with us by the time I get a permit to see him.”

She said that when her mother was ill in 2011, she wasn’t able to receive a permit until after her funeral took place.

“I don’t want to go through such a painful experience again,” said Ms. Zanon, who lives in a cramped two-room apartment with her husband and six children.

In March Egypt and Hamas sealed the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza for people trying to leave Gaza. Mr. al-Bozom of the Interior Ministry said Hamas was concerned that quarantine facilities could become overburdened if too many Palestinians exited Gaza through Rafah and then returned shortly thereafter.

But the new restriction has complicated the plans of many young Palestinians hoping to flee the poor living conditions in Gaza, where youth unemployment is more than 60 percent and poverty is rampant.

Nidal Kuhail, 26, had intended to quit his job at a restaurant in Gaza City, where he earns $13.22 per day, and move to Europe to either study or work. Now his plans are on hold.

“There’s no future or horizon here,” said Mr. Kuhail, who has been studying German at a cultural institute in Gaza. “The jobs are so few and so many people are despairing. I feel like I have no other choice but to immigrate.”

In Gaza, 32 percent of Palestinians said they want to emigrate because of the economic, political and social situation, according to a June poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.

Egypt opened Rafah in May 2018 after years of keeping it largely closed, and thousands, and perhaps tens of thousands, of Palestinians in Gaza have moved abroad.

Mr. Kuhail, who has only left Gaza once in his life, said he still was hopeful he would find a way to Europe.

“I’ll eventually make it,” he said. “I know when I do, I’ll be in a place where there are opportunities to build a decent life.”

Adam Rasgon reported from Jerusalem and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City.

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