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Palestinians announce West Bank tourism ban over coronavirus

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Bethlehem (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

The Palestinians announced measures to prevent the spread of new coronavirus Thursday, after the first suspected cases in the occupied West Bank.

The response included a two-week ban on tourists visiting cities and sites in the occupied West Bank, and the cancellation of major sporting events and other large gatherings.

The Church of the Nativity, built on the Bethlehem location revered as the birthplace of Jesus, was closed Thursday afternoon and is among the sites expected to be shuttered until March 20, an AFP correspondent said.

"We have decided to prevent the entry of tourists for a period of 14 days and to prevent hotels in all cities from receiving foreigners," tourism minister Rula Maayah told AFP.

The measures followed the first suspected cases in the West Bank of the disease, which has spread rapidly across the globe after emerging in China.

The Palestinian health ministry announced a number of suspected cases had been detected at a hotel in the Bethlehem area.

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

Four suspected cases have since been identified among hotel workers, he said.

The health ministry said it was still testing and would release final results later.

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

"People affected by corona visited the church," he told AFP. "It will be closed for 14 days and they are going to spray antiseptics."

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

Schools, universities and mosques in Bethlehem were closed Thursday, an AFP correspondent said.

The Palestine Marathon, scheduled for March 27, has been postponed.

Israel, which so far has 15 confirmed cases of the disease, has banned arrivals from Italy and imposed stringent measures on other European nations in a bid to contain the disease.

Israel and the United States also scrapped the remainder of a joint military exercise in Germany Thursday.

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

More than 95,000 people have been infected and over 3,200 have died worldwide from the virus, which by Thursday had reached some 80 countries and territories.

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