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Coronavirus Spreads Through Israeli, Palestinian Communities


Israelis and Palestinians have a common enemy right now. The coronavirus is spreading through those communities, and leaders on both sides have introduced tight lockdowns. There are particular concerns about the densely populated Gaza Strip. The United Nations has warned that the pandemic could result in the collapse of the health care system there. NPR's Daniel Estrin is covering all this from Jerusalem and joins us now. Good morning, Daniel.


MARTIN: Daniel, let's start with Gaza. Can you just give us a snapshot of the situation there?

ESTRIN: Well, listen to how a doctor from the World Health Organization describes it. His name is Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub.

GERALD ROCKENSCHAUB: There is shortages everywhere in medications, in electricity, in supplies. So we are trying to address this, but it's a very challenging and difficult environment here in Gaza.

ESTRIN: And the reason for that is that Gaza is a small territory along the Mediterranean. It's packed with 2 million Palestinians. It's ruled by an Islamist group. It's blockaded by neighboring countries. And its health system has just been completely overburdened after years of war and power cuts and shortages.

Right now, there are only 10 confirmed virus cases in Gaza, and those people are quarantined, but we don't know if the virus has spread even more because very few people in Gaza have been tested. And the concern is that if there are more cases, this virus could quickly spread in this very densely populated place and overload the health system. I mean, just to give you a sense - about 40% of essential medicines have run out, and there are only about 87 ventilators in Gaza total for 2 million people.

MARTIN: Wow. So that's the situation in Gaza, which sounds dire already. Let's look at the West Bank. What's happening there?

ESTRIN: Yeah, there are over a hundred cases of Palestinians who have caught the virus in the West Bank. Some of the first cases came from Christian pilgrims from abroad who were visiting Jesus' birthplace. And Palestinian authorities very quickly imposed lockdowns even earlier than Israel did, much stricter lockdowns. It's very difficult to move around in the West Bank. Palestinians can't drive between cities. There are checkpoints that Palestinian security officials have set up. And Palestinians are rallying around their leadership right now. They like these strict measures.

But the virus is posing a dilemma, which is that many Palestinians work as day laborers in Israel. It's important for the Palestinian economy, but now Palestinian leaders are worried that those workers are going to catch the virus in Israel, and some already have. And so now leaders are calling these workers to come back home, and that exodus of Palestinian labor, you know, could hurt Israel's economy, too.

MARTIN: So tell me more about what's going on in Israel itself.

ESTRIN: Israel really is struggling to contain the virus. There are more than 4,000 cases here. At least 17 people have died. The struggle is especially real in ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities. And police have cracked down there and handed out fines and tickets to people ignoring social distancing guidelines, and those communities are facing high infection rates. There are even calls to seal off some ultra-Orthodox Jewish areas.

The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is in self-quarantine. His aide tested positive for the virus. And so he has not yet tested positive, but he's in self-quarantine. He's announced even stricter lockdowns than what we've already seen, banning outdoor prayer gatherings.

MARTIN: And meanwhile, there's this political stalemate in Israel, right? What impact is that having on the leadership in this critical moment?

ESTRIN: Well, Netanyahu, who has struggled to remain in power for over a year, now you could say he's benefiting from the virus. His corruption trial was delayed, and it looks like he'll be able to continue to lead the country because his main political rival is going to be joining his unity government, it looks like.

MARTIN: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from Jerusalem. Thank you. We appreciate it, Daniel.

ESTRIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.