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Palestinians confirms virus cases, declare two-week tourist ban

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Bethlehem (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

The Palestinian government confirmed the first coronavirus cases in the occupied West Bank Thursday and declared a two-week ban on tourists visiting cities and sites including Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity.

The health ministry said seven cases had been confirmed in the Bethlehem area south of Jerusalem.

"They are now being treated in quarantine," a statement from minister Mai al-Kaila said.

Government officials announced a series of measures in the occupied West Bank, also including the cancellation of major sporting events and other large gatherings.

The Church of the Nativity, built on the 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 Palestinian health ministry said the cases had first 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.

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. "It will be closed for 14 days and they are going to spray antiseptics."

Schools, universities and mosques in Bethlehem were also closed Thursday, an AFP correspondent said, and the Palestine Marathon, scheduled for March 27, has been postponed.

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

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 disease.

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

The Israeli army 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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