Hamas extends Gaza lockdown for 72 hours as virus spreads

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Gaza’s Hamas rulers on Wednesday extended a full lockdown in the Palestinian enclave for three more days as coronavirus cases climbed following the detection this week of the first community transmissions of the virus in the densely populated, blockaded territory.

The Health Ministry reported three deaths and at least 22 infections among Gaza’s population of 2 million people since Monday, raising fears of a wider outbreak that could overwhelm a health system already battered by years of Israeli-Egyptian blockade, repeated conflicts with Israel and internal Palestinian political division.

The militant Hamas group, which seized Gaza by force from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007, had imposed a curfew across the Gaza Strip for 48 hours on Monday.

As Hamas extended the lockdown, Tawfiq Abu Naim, head of Hamas’ security services, warned of further stricter measures.

“We may have to shut down entire neighborhoods and lock up residents in their houses while providing them with what they need,” he told reporters. For now, the shutdown is relatively lax, with people still able to walk to the neighborhood groceries and bakeries and sit outside their homes. Only stores selling food and pharmacies are partially open.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said Gaza’s medical sector can handle hundreds of patients, but if the number tops 1,000, it will constitute a challenge, noting that fewer than 100 respirators are available in the territory.

Yousef Abu el-Rish, director of the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza, said medical crews are struggling to limit the daily number of infections to less than 280, noting the inadequate testing capacity. He added investigations were underway to track the source of the local virus.

Since March, Hamas has required any Palestinian returning to the territory through Israel or Egypt to spend 21 days in mandatory quarantine facilities. The tough measures appear to have greatly contained the virus, with just 110 infections and one fatality inside these centers. This week’s outbreak marked the first time the virus has been detected outside the quarantine facilities.

The lockdown has worsened already difficult conditions, forcing Gazans to stay at home at a time when there is only four hours of electricity a day. Gaza’s only power plant was forced to shut down on Aug. 18 after Israel closed the commercial crossing with Gaza and cut off fuel supplies.

The Israeli closure came in response to the launches of scores of incendiary balloons by pro-Hamas groups that have set dozens of fires on Israeli farmland. Israel has also responded with airstrikes and artillery shelling on Hamas targets. Hamas says it wants to pressure Israel to further ease Gaza’s blockade and allow large-scale projects

On Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned that Gazans are facing “a critical double crisis” with the acute power shortage and the spread of the virus.

“The population of Gaza is under terrible strain,” said Ignacio Casares Garcia, head of the ICRC’s Gaza subdelegation. “People are stressed: not only are they coping with just four hours of electricity a day; their worries over the virus have been hugely compounded and they are now under lockdown.”

Casares drew a grimmer forecast about the health sector’s capabilities, saying it “would not be able to deal with more than a few dozen coronavirus patients.” He noted that medical and laboratory equipment and special supplies and medications “are not available in hospitals and health centers in sufficient quantities.”