The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Palestine has exposed its structural vulnerability in a context of occupation. Events are still unfolding, but there is great concern that COVID-19 may severely affect Palestinian society, possibly causing a devastating sanitary, economic, and political crisis.
On March 5, the President of the Palestinian Authority (PA) Mahmoud Abbas declared a state of emergency for 30 days (extended of another 30 days on April 3), after seven people tested positive in the city of Bethlehem. These first cases were reported after some tourists who visited Bethlehem and Jericho were diagnosed with COVID-19. The closure order was given by the Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, and executed by the Israeli Army (Israeli Defense Forces, IDF) and the COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories) in coordination with the PA. Following the state of emergency, all PA schools and universities were closed, while movement, both between governates and inside municipalities, was limited to only necessary cases.
The announcement of the state of emergency coincided with the Jewish holiday of Purim, during which all crossings from the West Bank and Gaza into Israel are closed. Checkpoints tightened restrictions and controls even at the end of the festivity, and on March 18 the closure of the West Bank and Gaza was extended until further notice. Border crossings to and from Egypt and Jordan were also suspended. A day prior to closure, the Palestinian labourers in Israel –working in agriculture, construction, industry and low-value-added services – had been prohibited from moving back and forth and given three days to decide whether to stay in the West Bank or cross and stay in Israel (this measure did not apply to Israeli settlements) for at least two months.
These measures were meant to contain the spread of the virus by avoiding daily overcrowding where people are often queuing cheek by jowl at the checkpoints. In fact, the first COVID-19 positive case outside Bethlehem was a manual labourer from Tulkarem working in Israel and, according to the Palestinian authorities, most of the new confirmed cases are among workers in Israel or in the Israeli settlements. Tens of thousands of Palestinians took the painful decision to leave their families and find an accommodation at their workplaces. A series of heart-breaking pictures portrays these workers while crossing into Israel on a gloomy, rainy day, carrying their belongings in small suitcases and plastic bags. The number of Palestinian labourers working in Israel and the Israeli settlements is estimated to be between 100,000 and 130,000 people (a considerable number of West Bankers work without a permit and cross illegally), and their income represents approximately 15 percent of Palestinian GDP. For a fragile and increasingly unequal economy such as the Palestinian, this is a vital source of income, particularly amongst the poorest segments of the society. On the other hand, key sectors for the Israeli economy, like the construction and infrastructure sectors, have been declared “essential” by the latest emergency regulations, and allowed to continue operating within set limits. A huge debate has recently sparked about the possible return of an estimated number of 45,000 Palestinian workers – many of them without a valid permit - to the West Bank for the Jewish holiday of Passover. While the PA is pushing for Israel to test the workers, out of fear of a massive contagion, Israeli employers are afraid of the labour shortage that they may have to face if the workers will not be permitted back into Israel.
On March 22, the PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh ordered the lockdown, including a curfew, with PA security forces patrolling the main roads and connections. The PA Ministry of Health is following up on the situation in close partnership with the WHO, while the donor community has been working to mobilize additional funds to put a COVID-19 response plan in place. The PA has not yet recovered from last year’s budget crisis (due to Israel’s withholding of the taxes it collects on behalf of the PA, as per the Oslo Accords), and does not have the financial capacity to prepare and equip its health system for a pandemic, particularly in terms of access to test kits, medical supplies and availability of ICU beds and ventilators.
The conditions of the lockdown ordered by the Israeli government also apply to East Jerusalem, with movement restrictions and the shutdown of non-essential economic activities. While several observers criticize the lack of testing among Israeli Arabs and East Jerusalem residents, Israel is also considering the possibility of closing the checkpoint at the entrance to the Shuafat Refugee Camp, in an attempt to cut off a number of neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem and prevent the circulation of thousands of Jerusalem ID holders. On March 23, access to Al-Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest Muslim site – was closed to Muslim worshippers, which in turn spread worry that Jewish extremists might take this chance to take over the Haram El-Sharif. In a similar vein, many Palestinians fear that the lockdown may embolden settler violence in the West Bank and occupation-related violations, such as demolitions and confiscations, as confirmed by many episodes occurred over the course of the past weeks.
Sadly, the situation is even more dramatic in the Gaza Strip. The health system in the Strip has been near collapse for years, as dramatically witnessed during the poignant scenes of massive casualties and injuries during the Great March protests of 2018-2019. Moreover, the Gazan population has been experiencing a constant deterioration in their living conditions, characterised by high poverty rates, unstainable food dependency levels, a chronic shortage of electricity and lack of potable water (approximately only 3 percent of the aquifer water in Gaza is fit to drink). The Hamas government has been trying to prepare for COVID-19 with the technical assistance of the WHO, especially by building or rehabilitating quarantine and medical facilities, but the major challenge remains access to medical supplies, along with test kits. Cafés, restaurants, and reception halls were closed on March 20, Friday prayers were suspended. Nevertheless, social distancing is almost impossible in one of the most densely populated regions of the world, already battered by 13 years of blockade. Many experts fear that the outbreak of the pandemic in the Gaza Strip will very likely cost the lives of many people, and similar concerns may also be raised with respect to the population of the Palestinian refugee camps, highly vulnerable and largely dependent on UNRWA aid (which in the health sector only covers primary healthcare).
As of April 5, the WHO recorded 226 confirmed cases of coronavirus, 214 in the West Bank and 12 in the Gaza Strip. In addition, Al Jazeera reported that 4 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails tested positive for COVID-19 (5 including a 19-year-old prison released from Ofer, who tested positive at his arrival in Betunia, Ramallah, on April 1). The future of Palestine is rife with uncertainty. The PA and Hamas are well aware that an escalation of corona virus cases may have severe consequences not only in terms of the death toll, but also on control measures and restrictions that Israel may adopt in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip within the context of handling a health emergency and counteracting the spread of the virus. As aptly pointed out by the scholar Tareq Baconi on his Twitter page, the PA declared the state of emergency as an enforcement of Israeli measures, which in turn makes clear that Palestine is not managing this crisis as a sovereign entity.
Second, the outbreak of the pandemic has shown how dramatically dependent Palestine is on foreign aid, and it will need development cooperation funding and humanitarian aid even more than ever in the years to come to recover from the deep economic crisis that will follow. Regular economic activity has been heavily affected, the people operating in the informal sector will soon run out of liquidity because of the lockdown and the lack of safety nets, their incomes will likely be severely eroded, which would cause an increase in the level of private and household indebtedness. As combating the coronavirus is set to be the main priority for the months to come, the crisis looming over the horizon will make Palestine and the Palestinian people once again pay the price for their multidimensional fragility under occupation.