Palestinian groups cancel border protests over coronavirus concerns

Gaza's Great March of Return second-anniversary rally cancelled over coronavirus concerns
3 min read
28 March, 2020
Organisers cancelled the Great March of Return's second anniversary rally amid concerns the novel coronavirus will spread throughout the densely-populated enclave.
The rally marking the Great March of Return's second anniversary has been cancelled [Anadolu/Getty]
Palestinian groups in the besieged Gaza strip have cancelled the mass protest rallies planned for next week amid concerns about coronavirus, organisers said on Saturday.

A large-scale protest had been called along Gaza's border with Israel for March 30 to mark the two-year anniversary of the Great March of Return.

But organisers cancelled the anniversary rally amid concerns the novel coronavirus will spread throughout the densely-populated enclave, Reuters reported.

"We call upon our people not to go to the Return encampments on March 30 and to stay home in order to maintain the safety of our people in the face of this lethal pandemic," Khaled al-Batsh, a senior member of the Islamic Jihad militant group, said.

Batsh instead asked Gazans to mark the anniversary by burning Israeli flags and raising Palestinian flags on their rooftop, Reuters reported.

The large scale protests, which called for the right of return of refugees and an end to Israel's crippling decade-long blockade, began on March 2018 and peaked on May 14 when the US moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem.

At least 348 Palestinians have been killed in total by Israeli fire since the weekly Great Return March protests began, the majority during the demonstrations, according to an AFP toll. 

During that period one Israeli soldier was killed on the border during the demonstrations, by a sniper.

Gaza's medical facilities have already switched their focus from protest casualties to the pandemic.

With nine coronavirus cases already confirmed in the Gaza Strip, hospitals that were once overwhelmed by gunshot wounds are now gearing up for a very different challenge in a densely populated, coastal enclave of two million Palestinians, many living in refugee camps.

A new quarantine centre has been set up in Rafah, near the border with Egypt, and the 42-square-metre (452-square-feet) tents donated by the World Health Organisation that once served as border Trauma Stabilisation Points have been moved to tackle the new threat.

"All of the tents and medical supplies that had been used during the marches of return have been employed in the ministry’s measures to protect our people against coronavirus," Gaza health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said.

Read more: What the coronavirus outbreak means for Palestinian refugees 

WHO's head of office for the occupied Palestinian territories, Gerald Rockenschaub, toured the new Rafah facilities last week as his team delivered lab-testing supplies and personal protective equipment.

"Measures have been put in place but Gaza is a very challenging environment, it is a very crowded environment," he said.

"There are shortages everywhere, in medication, in electricity and in supplies. We are trying to address this."

Agencies contributed to this report.

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