Occupation in a time of coronavirus

Checkpoint Susiya village photo courtesy HIRN

In the West Bank, Palestinians are facing the trauma of lockdown and the coronavirus crisis in a context of intensifying Israeli occupation. Dave Clinch and Oisin Challen Flynn spoke to Palestinian activists from Hebron and Bethlehem about how life – and resistance – are continuing.

This is an article from the current issue of Middle East Solidarity magazine help us continue our work by donating £2 for a digital copy online

The city of Hebron went into lockdown on Saturday 20 June with only grocery stores and pharmacies allowed to open. Ahmed, an activist with Hebron International Resources Network, told us that weddings and prayers in mosques have been banned following the reporting of just over 1800 cases of coronavirus in Hebron governorate. Social life and communal celebrations had been identified as spreading the virus, including a wedding in Taffuh, near Hebron and a large gathering in the village of Idnaa to celebrate the end of a blood feud.

Testing facilities in the city itself have been overwhelmed by the demand, and people are having to go as far as Jenin in the north for the procedure, Ahmed explained. The province goes into this crisis with very limited health care resources. There are 170 hospital beds in Hebron city, serving a population of 220,000, a further 50 beds in Halhoul and 120 more in Doura while in the West Bank as a whole there are only 120 ventilators. 

Aida refugee camp entrance Archive photo: Numerosept, via Flickr

In the Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem, the situation is – if anything – more traumatic, according to Mohammed Abu Srour, a member of the camp’s Popular Committee. Seventy years after its foundation, more than 5,000 people are crammed into a space which is only 0.7 km square. As Mohammed explained, solidarity and cooperation have been essential to their survival for decades, so the advice on social distancing was psychologically hard to implement, as well as being almost physically impossible in such confined quarters. 

“People cooperated with each other for the last 70 years and this is one of the reasons they were able to survive … we have a small area, which is very crowded and there is no privacy … so how could we tell the people to keep distant and stay away from each other?” 

The Popular Committee took the lead, Mohammed said. “We were always the ones wearing a mask, trying to talk to people in lots of ways, telling them this is not a game or lie, that we need to be careful or there are people we love who are going to die and get hurt.” 

Aida’s Popular Committee quickly found out that they were going to have to rely on themselves to protect the camp’s residents. “We first heard about the virus on 5 March, when the Ministry of Health announced there were 7 or 8 cases, causing a panic in the whole city of Bethlehem,” Mohammed told us. In the refugee camp itself, the UNRWA, the United Nations body tasked with supporting Palestinian refugees was meant to be in charge. Yet it took 70 days before any support materialised, when 200 food packs arrived at the camp – a drop in the ocean compared to the scale of the crisis. “We tried to reach them in different ways, tried to get in touch with them and nobody responded to us. And all that we heard from them was that they are also on lockdown in Jerusalem,” Mohammed said. 

In response the Popular Committee drew up an emergency plan, distributing sanitiser and PPE around the camp. “We tried to work through social media, through the mosque, in the streets, using DJs to deliver the information and news. We even did home visits, each two volunteers going to visit 10 or 12 houses, providing reassurance to people, telling them about symptoms of the virus and what they can do to protect themselves from it.” 

By the second and third week, camp residents started reporting losing their jobs. In a context where few people have any savings – and support from the Palestinian Authority was almost non-existent – the Popular Committee realised they would need to mount a major food relief campaign. During Ramadan they started a kitchen which delivered 400-600 meals a day to people around the city, thanks to donations from wealthy residents. Finding funding for supplies of medication was much more challenging, Mohammed told us. “We have almost 30 diabetes patients and we need to pay around $100 every 3 weeks to cover their insulin and you need a high budget to cover that.” 

Meanwhile in Hebron, movement is very difficult because of the lockdown. “HIRN has the ability to negotiate permits for emergency rescue vehicles, thus managing to provide food baskets for extremely vulnerable families”, Ahmed explained. But it is not just the coronavirus restrictions which are impeding the efforts to support people through the virus. As HIRN has documented, the 16 families who live in the community of Al Qanoob face multiple restrictions: “They are surrounded by areas declared as Military Zones, face a large number of settler attacks and violence that has prevented them from accessing their water resources and grazing fields.” In addition they have experienced a large number of Stop Work orders and the Israeli authorities have confiscated cars and mobile latrines in addition to about 300 dunums of land for further settlement expansion. 

Attacks from settlers in the South Hebron Hills villages of At-Tuwani and Susya have continued unabated. The settlers of the Havat Ma’on ‘outpost’ are armed, extremely violent and have for example posed a daily threat to children going to school for many years. Usually international volunteers would be accompanying the students but most have had to leave Palestine at the start of the pandemic. In At-Tuwani recently a sheep barn was destroyed. Residents were prevented from leaving the village for work or to go to school, by the erection of a tent on the track. According to Israeli activists from the Villages Group, who have been visiting Susya and At-Tuwani for years to offer solidarity, settlers “very often enter the village itself, go wild breaking things, destroying property and farm equipment, and make the lives of the inhabitants insufferable. They do this while the men are away at work, and only the women and children are present, and they simply sow terror. Whoever comes close to their tent would risk his life – at gunpoint. Later we shall read in the paper that “another terrorist who was trying to murder Jewish colonists was shot and neutralized.””

Since early March HIRN has helped to purchase 500 Coronavirus fighting kits, and sent food baskets to ten families isolated from shopping in Bethlehem because of Palestine Authority travel restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus. Further food assistance has been given to families in the old city of Hebron. Funds were also raised to provide disinfectant tanks for spraying in the village of Susya. 

In Aida refugee camp, political and health campaigns began to mesh together through mobilisations in solidarity with Palestinian prisoners. “We wrote graffiti, we made two songs for them and we launched a campaign called “Mazyouna wants to see her child”, named after one of the mothers of the Palestinian prisoners, because we didn’t want the people to forget about the prisoners inside”, explained Mohammed. 

“Mazyouna told me, “people are complaining about being under lockdown for one week, but my son was in prison for 30 years. See how we couldn’t be in prison for 7 days and they have been there for 30 years” so now you can imagine how much those people are suffering.”

Meanwhile the relentless drive of Israel’s right-wing government to grab more land at the Palestinians’ expense powers on, early abetted by their allies in the USA. “They used the time when Palestinians have been busy with Covid to continue with their “Deal of the Century,”” Mohammed told us. “They are not going to annex the Palestinians … they want the land without the population.” 

International solidarity matters more than ever in these times, Mohammed and Ahmed stressed. And even when volunteers cannot visit, solidarity organisations are mobilising to raise vital funding and to keep the pressure on their own governments for their support of Israel. 

Ahmed works with the Hebron International Resources Network (HIRN) which raises funds worldwide to support schools and also vulnerable individuals, families and communities in the occupied West Bank.

To donate to Hebron International Resources Network projects please go here

To donate to Aida Refugee Camp Covid 19 projects go here

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