Bethlehem under lockdown after virus cases confirmed

Bethlehem is placed on lockdown with people forbidden from entering or leaving after seven coronavirus cases are found in the biblical city

  • Palestinian authorities announced a month-long state of emergency last night
  • Tourist buses to and from Bethlehem have been banned by Israeli police
  • The Church of the Nativity on reputed site of Jesus’ birth has also been closed 

The city of Bethlehem was on lockdown today after the first Palestinian cases of coronavirus were discovered there.

Palestinian authorities announced a month-long state of emergency last night while the Israeli defence ministry said people were ‘forbidden from entering or leaving the city’. 

All tourist buses to and from Bethlehem have been banned until further notice, Israeli police have said, with some already turned away today.  

The Church of the Nativity, built on the site where Jesus was reputedly born, was closed yesterday and is expected to be shut for a month.  

Palestinian police officers speak to a man outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem today with the biblical city under lockdown over coronavirus fears

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, revered by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, has been shut after seven coronavirus cases were discovered in Bethlehem 

Today around 20 buses were stuck at a checkpoint run by Israeli personnel at the entrance to the biblical city, which is in the occupied West Bank, around six miles south of Israeli-controlled Jerusalem. 

The streets in Bethlehem and Ramallah, where the Palestinian government is based, were near empty on Friday morning, with most shops closed.

Israel controls all entrances to the West Bank from the Jewish state but the Palestinian government has limited autonomy in cities.

Israeli officials said the lockdown in Bethlehem had been imposed ‘in coordination with the Palestinian Authority’. 

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh made a special broadcast late last night to announce the 30-day lockdown, saying the measures were essential to contain the disease.

All but essential travel between Palestinian governorates was now prohibited, while all schools and educational facilities would close, he said.

Public parks and tourist sites would close while large sporting events, conferences and other major gatherings were cancelled, Shtayyeh added.

The Palestinian health ministry said the seven newly discovered cases had first been detected at a hotel in the Bethlehem area.

People wearing masks visit the Church of the Nativity yesterday, shortly before it was closed

Private health workers walk out of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem after spraying sanitisers as a preventive measure against the coronavirus

Palestinian authorities said the church, which Christians believe is built on the site where Jesus was born, would be closed to tourists for 14 days

All seven of those infected were being treated in quarantine, the Palestinian health ministry said.

The head of the local health directorate, Imad Shahadeh, said a group of Greek tourists had visited the hotel in late February, with two later diagnosed with the virus.

A number of suspected cases have since been identified among hotel workers, he said.

Asbed Balian, senior cleric of the Armenian church at the Church of the Nativity, said infected visitors had entered the site.

‘People affected by corona visited the church,’ he told AFP. Workmen began spraying disinfectant inside the church on Thursday evening. 

COGAT, the Israeli body responsible for civilian activities in the Palestinian Territories, said it was ‘working closely with the Palestinian Authority’ to stem the spread of the virus.

Israel, which so far has 16 confirmed cases of the disease, has imposed stringent measures on many European nations in a bid to contain the virus.

It has also scrapped joint military exercises with the United States in Germany.

The Israeli army announced that from noon Friday all forces would be prevented from leaving Israel, whether ‘on personal trips or on duty’.

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