I write this on a day that saw the confirmation of a sudden and delayed rise of Covid-19 cases among Palestinians in the small neighborhood of Silwan, East Jerusalem. On this very day, I had been denied access to my workplace in Ramallah by Israeli soldiers at the Qalandia Checkpoint, in spite of having shown them my card as an official emergency officer from the Palestinian Ministry of Health—a document which was dismissed by the soldiers with the statement, “We don’t recognize such a card.”
In Occupied Palestine, the Covid-19 pandemic has already hit the various fragmented Palestinian communities, each of which displays a fragile health system lacking integration into a national whole. At the same time, it is documented that Palestinian Jerusalemites and 1948 Palestinians, who are served by the Israeli health system, have long been suffering from inequalities in health provision. These inequities have already impacted chronic diseases, life expectancy, and mortality rates. The response of the Israeli health system to Covid-19 has widened the gap between the 80 % Jewish majority and the 20 % Palestinian minority that are served by the same system. In spite of the fact that the Palestinian minority is overrepresented as health workers within the Israeli health system, their communities have been widely underserved during this pandemic. The provision of educational materials in the Arabic language was late in arriving, accessibility to Covid-19 stations in Arab towns has been difficult, there was an absence of Arab representation in the Emergency Health Committee, and there has been a huge gap in testing.
All of these factors contribute to the rise in cases we currently observe in the Arab communities. While mobilizing the Jewish majority to face the pandemic, Israeli Prime minister has been busy with discriminatory incitement against the Arab participation in the government and wrongly blamed the Palestinians for not abiding by the rules of the lockdown—perhaps to offer a preemptive rationalization for any expected rise in the number of cases among Palestinians. In fact, however, Palestinian neighborhoods have been adhering more closely to pandemic regulations than the Jewish Orthodox neighborhoods, while they were being treated more harshly; police superintendent Yaniv Miller, assigned to assist patrols in Jewish areas that were not adhering to the lockdown, told army recruits, “I’m reminding you, guys, we’re not in the (occupied) territories in the West Bank and not on the border. It takes a long time for a policeman to fire a bullet. A policeman shoots only as a last resort after he’s been shot at,” (quoted in Haaretz, April 3, 2020). In another attempt to mask inequalities in health service provision, Israeli minister of culture Miri Regev managed to find two Arab citizens, Ahmad Balawneh, a nurse, and Yasmine Mazzawi, a paramedic to accept her invitation to light a torch during the Palestinian Nakba/ Israeli Independence Day ceremony to be held on April 29, a collective insult, that is disguised an honor!
The situation in the West Bank and Gaza reflects the different levels of political oppression faced by these two areas. I have described the measures taken by the Ministry of Health in the West Bank in an interview, explaining that the tough measures regarding closure with all its devastating economic impact is the best course of action that the Palestinian Authority could undertake, given our lack of resources at the level of tertiary health care and lack of sovereignty over our borders. Gaza is even less prepared and at a greater disadvantage; the situation can be very dangerous in Gaza due to the debilitating siege and its devastating socio-economic conditions. Gaza’s population survives in a density of 5,000 per square kilometer, with a high prevalence of anemia, malnutrition, and food insecurity. Gazans suffer from an equally pervasive prevalence of chronic illnesses and mental health conditions; they are at the mercy of variant oppressive powers that decide whatever and whoever enters and escapes from its cage. The cutting off of American aid—a political punishment—has been detrimental to UNRWA, the Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem, and multiple other aspects of the health system in Palestine.
Despite these realities, Israel has been bragging about its support, generosity, and help offered to the Palestinian Authority. The United Nations has praised Israel for its “excellent” cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in fighting the Covid-19 through various steps: transferring $25 million to the PA (from previously-withheld tax money!), sending medical equipment to the West Bank and Gaza–including 20 respirators to augment the 80 that are already there—as well as 300 testing kits and 50,000 masks; Israel has permitted equipment ordered by the WHO to arrive in the Palestinian territories and allowed Gaza to accept Qatari money. Those who are impressed with Israel’s kindness seem to ignore Article 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention which states, “To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the co-operation of national and local authorities, the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics. Medical personnel of all categories shall be allowed to carry out their duties.”
Those praising Israel also seem to ignore that the epidemic of Occupation continues as usual, with home demolitions while everyone is told “stay at home,” with killing and detention, and planning for the annexation of the Jordan Valley. Unnoticed is the only specific consideration for the pandemic–that Israeli soldiers must wear personal protective equipment when entering Bethlehem to arrest people; unnoticed are the Israeli forces dumping Palestinian laborers at checkpoints in the WestBank whenever they suspected these workers of having the virus. Unnoticed is the attempt of the Israeli government to exchange Israeli prisoners for medical aid to Gaza! The truth is that Israel has been responsible for sickening the Palestinian and impairing their wellbeing, the effect of that will be carried in our epigenetic for generations to come.
Meanwhile, Palestinians are joining with all of those on earth who currently struggle against the pandemic. In so doing, we seem to be asserting our desire for sovereignty and we even feel better trained in dealing with confinement and uncertainty than many other populations currently competing to buy guns, or hoard goods at supermarkets, or pirate medical equipment. We in Palestine attempt to stand up to this challenge with a spirit of social collaboration and altruism. Our results are, “so far, so good,” and we realize that this is not the most difficult station on our long struggle for self-determination and freedom.
The pandemic emergency indeed is helping to raise Palestinian confidence in our capacities for independence and we don’t feel alone in this battle. Even beyond this, our hopes are rising to utilize the field of medicine as a form of diplomacy through building channels with other countries for partnerships and collaboration in times of crisis, countries that have left us alone in our national struggle.
The current crisis should not distract us from working for our long-term objectives. It is now more urgent than ever to end the siege of Gaza and the apartheid system that reduces Palestine to an unwilling incubator for medical and social epidemics.