Lockdown under Occupation: COVID-19 in Palestine

By EA Billy

In early March, the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Palestine. The Palestinian Authority, which provisionally governs much of the West Bank, was quick to act with lockdown measures. A ban was placed on foreign tourists, schools and mosques were closed, and streets became deserted overnight. The measures have so far been successful: as of the 12th May, only 375 cases have been reported, with four deaths.

Palestine has been under military occupation by Israel since 1967. The continuing lockdown and wider fears about the disease have been disastrous for a region that was already experiencing economic devastation long before COVID-19 hit. Problems already apparent before COVID-19, such as restrictions on freedom of movement and an unstable job market, have been worsened by this new reality. The following are some of the stories and experiences of Palestinians under lockdown in the Tulkarm/Qalqilya area, in the northern West Bank.

Jomana lives in the city of Tulkarm, where initial measures were very strict: “we were not allowed to go for a walk, and tried to get food delivered if possible.” While some measures have now been lifted in the West Bank, Palestinian police are enforcing a strict 5pm closing time for shops currently. Fortunately, Jomana has not lost her job working in an office in Tulkarm city centre. She is now the main income earner in the house, as her father “cannot go to work, and there is no financial help from the government. He is financing himself from his savings only, which is very hard for him because he is the responsible one in this house.”

The men are the main breadwinners in most Palestinian households, and families like Jomana’s, where the father of the house had previous work in Israel, now face an indefinite period of reduced, or no income.

“Those in government jobs, they are staying in their houses taking their salaries. [But] workers who work in Israel are dependent on working day-by-day. I hope that this situation will be fixed one day.”

Many of the agricultural areas around Tulkarm are near the separation barrier, which is a fence (and in some places a wall) that stands between Israel and the occupied Palestinian West Bank. However, 85% of the barrier goes into Palestinian territory, effectively cutting off free access to 9% of Palestinian land. This 9% of land is known as the “seam zone”, and is subject to strict movement and access restrictions. A lot of Palestinian-owned farmland is in the seam zone, which can only be accessed through special agricultural checkpoints that are only open 3 times a day. All of these agricultural checkpoints are now closed indefinitely, meaning that farmers who have land in the seam zone cannot maintain crops.

Yousef* usually crosses each day for work at one such checkpoint, separating the towns of Nazlat ‘Isa and Baqa al-Gharbiyye. The checkpoint was closed indefinitely because of coronavirus concerns, meaning that the hundreds who pass it every day are cut off from their livelihoods.

This is a devastating development for many Palestinian families, including Yousef’s:

“My family and I are in good health, thank God. But we suffer because of the economic conditions and because there is no work.”

Yousef lost his job at the beginning of the pandemic, and receives no government assistance. “When the restrictions [are lifted] many people [will have lost] their job.” He also said that some Palestinians are continuing to work in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, despite a ban on such work by the Palestinian Authority. “They are venturing there for their wives and children.” Settlements are communities of Israeli citizens that are built on confiscated land in the Palestinian West Bank. Such settlements are illegal under international law.

Farmers waiting for the morning opening of an agricultural checkpoint. All such checkpoints are now closed indefinitely.  [Photo: EAPPI/Billy].

Yousef says that it is easy to access hospital at the moment, but there are delays for some medical procedures because of the fear of transmission. He also points out that local hospitals must deal with Palestinians who become sick while working across the border:

“Israel does not accept any examination of any Palestinian, and they [send them] to Palestinian hospitals if they show symptoms.”

Israel and the Palestinian Authority have worked together to implement COVID-19 restrictions in Palestine. Some of the measures are not new to the region, however. Movements of people and goods throughout the West Bank have been tightly controlled for decades, measures that the Israeli government says are for security reasons. This situation has long been impacting essential services like health.

Suhad works for the Palestinian Medical Relief Society (PMRS) in the city of Qalqilya. Normally, a mobile clinic from the PMRS goes from Qalqilya into vulnerable Bedouin communities that are inside the “seam zone.” These communities endure great hardship due to being cut off from basic services in both Palestine and Israel.

Under the new regime of restrictions, Suhad says, “our mobile clinic team is not allowed by Israel to cross to give healthcare to the Bedouin living behind the wall in the seam zone”. Further, she says that “[the Israeli authorities] do not allow [seam zone residents] to cross to come to us without a previous coordination, even if they have the regular permission”. She says that this extra time spent coordinating with the Israeli authorities delays vital work, and puts the health of people in these communities at further risk.

The mobile clinic visiting one of the seam zone villages.  [Photo: EAPPI/Sol].

She questions the need for extensive checks on the mobile clinic and its staff: “we are not allowed to reach them despite the fact that we are a medical team and we know how to do things.” On 7th May, the mobile clinic was finally allowed to pass into the seam zone for the first time in over a month, but uncertainty over future regular visits remain.

As the virus restrictions have come into force, difficulties have arisen for Palestinians from the West Bank working in Israel. Before COVID-19, up to 40,000 permits were issued annually to Palestinians to work in Israel. Every morning (or sometimes just Monday, returning at the weekend), thousands of workers passed through checkpoints in the separation barrier. These workers have now been granted permission to stay in Israel temporarily for a period of two months to ensure they do not bring the virus back to their communities. Some, however, have chosen to return to the West Bank because of obligations at home.

Qualqilya checkpoint, one of the largest in the West Bank. Over 11,000 people pass through this CP every Monday morning between 4-6am, but it is currently closed indefinitely. [Photo: EAPPI/Billy].

Balcom* is a young Palestinian man who has been working on a construction site in Israel since before the COVID-19 crisis. He has recently returned from working on a construction site in Israel, where he was staying in accommodation nearby. “All the employers had to offer accommodation for their workers, which contains bedrooms and bathrooms with showers.” He says that all of his colleagues on the building site were also Palestinians, and they are living in an apartment together where it was possible to practice social distancing.

According to B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organisation, “Israel declared it would allow some 70,000 workers to remain in its territory, but many chose to return to the West Bank, citing fear of infection and the difficulty of being away from their families as key reasons. About 20,000 stayed in Israel”.  The workers who chose to go back to their families do not receive any kind of compensation or financial assistance. If they go home due to illness, they risk losing their jobs and putting family and friends at risk. Other members of Balcom’s family have also returned home, sacrificing paid work in Israel.

“Some of them don’t know if they will be back to their former bosses because many things have changed.”

Palestinian prisoners are also suffering in jails in the West Bank and Israel, with media reporting that prisoners are being exposed to COVID-19 from prison staff and other prisoners due to lack of PPE and other hygiene measures. Some of Balcom’s friends are in prisons in Israel, in “very bad conditions.” Yousef also has friends in prison: “Some of them are severely beaten, they have no comforts.” Jomana knows of a woman who is currently in prison. There are very few Palestinian women in prison (just 43 as of April 2020) but they are often treated just as badly as their male counterparts.

“She said that the situation was very bad inside the prison. They are all together inside the same room, afraid of coronavirus.”

The UN has called for the temporary release of Palestinian prisoners who are classed as vulnerable, such as children, and people with pre-existing conditions. Phone calls were supposed to be banned until 15th May, until a court order overturned the ban for some prisoners.

While responses to coronavirus have meant many people around the world experiencing new restrictions on their freedom of movement, many Palestinian residents of the West Bank have been used to movement restrictions their whole lives. Many Western countries have the capability of implementing vast fiscal packages to protect jobs and ensure support for those who lose them. Following decades of military occupation, the West Bank does not have the same levels of job security, and there is no government welfare available if the economic downturn lasts. On top of this, there are plans to formally annex large areas of the the West Bank this summer under the “peace plan” announced by Netanyahu and Trump last year. Even if Palestinians are spared a large COVID-19 outbreak, there are other crises to face in the near future if the status quo continues.

*names have been changed

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