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Joy in Gaza as mosques reopen after pandemic closure

Some mosques in the Gaza Strip opened their doors 10 days ago for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which celebrates the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, but Wednesday marked a full reopening in the enclave (AFP Photo/MOHAMMED ABED)

Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Mosques in the Gaza Strip reopened on Wednesday after a 70-day closure due to the novel coronavirus, with one worshipper saying he was "overjoyed" despite fears over the pandemic.

Wearing a black face mask, an imam in Gaza City led the call to prayer as mosques reopened across the Palestinian enclave with health measures in place.

Worshippers were told to wear face masks inside mosques, which would be regularly disinfected as a precautionary measure, Gaza's religious affairs ministry said.

Children and sick people were told not to attend prayers.

In Gaza City, worshipper Khader Mussa said he was "overjoyed" to attend dawn prayers but had also been careful to protect his health.

"I got there just two minutes before the start of prayer to avoid contact with other worshippers and then left at the end, without shaking hands with anyone," the 40-year-old told AFP.

The strip has registered around 60 coronavirus cases and one death, all among Gazans returning to the enclave who have been quarantined on arrival.

After the virus was first detected on March 22, mosques, restaurants and universities were closed.

Some mosques opened their doors 10 days ago for the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which celebrates the end of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, but Wednesday marked a full reopening.

"We are happy mosques have opened," said Muhammad Hamad, wearing a face mask.

"We thank God, who protected us from the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip," he added.

The United Nations has warned that a COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza could be disastrous, given its high population density, soaring poverty rates and weak health system.

Israel has held Gaza under a crippling blockade since 2007, as part of its opposition to Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the strip.

Hamas is a rival to the Palestinian Authority based in the occupied West Bank, and as a result, there have been different approaches to the pandemic in the separate Palestinian territories.

The PA introduced a state of emergency in March after an outbreak of coronavirus in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, which was renewed on Wednesday.

"President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree extending the state of emergency for 30 more days starting June 4 amid the coronavirus outbreak in the occupied territories," official news agency WAFA said.

Mosques, shops and restaurants have already reopened in the West Bank and the extension "does not involve closures", government spokesman Ibrahim Melhem wrote on Twitter.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has warned restrictions could be reimposed if there is a spike in COVID-19 cases.

According to an official tally, 390 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the West Bank and two have died.