U.S. couple, stranded by coronavirus in Gaza, returning to 'scary' Florida

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – Adria and Ayman Arafat are finally heading home to Florida after being stranded for months in the Gaza Strip by coronavirus-related restrictions but fear they will now face a much greater health risk.

Gaza has seen only 81 cases of COVID-19 and just one death so far, partly a result of blockades imposed on the Palestinian territory by neighbouring Egypt and Israel, while Florida’s infection rates are among the highest in the United States.

The Arafats, who arrived in Gaza last December to visit relatives, are eager to get back to their four children in the United States and have taken advantage of Egypt’s decision to briefly open its Rafah border crossing for departing Gazans and foreign passport holders for the first time since March.

But Adria Arafat, who is a school principal in Panama City, Florida, admits to some sense of trepidation in heading back to Florida, which has so far recorded more than 530,000 COVID-19 cases and as of Monday 8,404 deaths.

“That is scary, but as long as you take the precautions and you’re careful … you just have to trust in God and go from there,” she said.

Her husband Ayman, a businessman, added: “A part of me doesn’t want to leave, but my children are there and like them we will have to cope, we have to.”

Citing security concerns, Israel and Egypt tightly restrict cross-border movement with Gaza, territory controlled by Hamas Islamists. Rafah is the only exit point for Gazans seeking to travel, via Egypt, to other countries.

The blockades – condemned by rights groups as collective punishment – and stringent quarantine measures for anyone entering Gaza have together effectively stopped the coronavirus from spreading in the Strip, home to some two million people.

The three-day reopening of Rafah will also allow Palestinians stranded by the pandemic in Egypt to return to Gaza. Local health officials have voiced concern that at least 20 percent of the 3,000 expected returnees could be infected.

People crossing into Gaza will have to spend three weeks in quarantine and be tested for COVID-19.

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