Palestinians who have been refugees since Israel was established in 1948 are particularly vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, not only where they live in countries around the region such as Lebanon, but also among fellow Palestinians under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. Many depend on the United Nations (UN) for jobs, schooling and food assistance. The Israeli government and the UN are legally required to protect and assist the refugees. These authorities are, however, not meeting their obligations—an especially dangerous situation now during a global health crisis. Local organizations and individuals are doing what they can to help their communities, as Nidal Al-Azza explains.
Their conversation has been translated from Arabic and edited for length and clarity. Links were added by Bishara and the editors.
Q: What steps were taken to confront the coronavirus pandemic in the West Bank, how is the Palestinian Authority (PA) managing the crisis and how are people coping?
A: Physical distancing, lockdowns and stay-at-home orders began in a piecemeal fashion in early March in Bethlehem and then expanded to the rest of the West Bank. For example, lockdown was imposed in Ramallah two weeks later. These policies were a result of coordination between Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Authority. Lifting these rules too early would be dangerous. Perhaps the disease has been kept under control here so far, and that’s a success. But it could begin to spread again.
I think that if the crisis was to continue another month, the situation would become dire. There was high unemployment among Palestinian refugees even before the COVID-19 crisis. And a large percentage of Palestinian refugees depend on day labor, especially in construction. These people no longer have work because many projects have temporarily shut down. Even the restaurants are closed. Also, fewer people now have permits to work in Israel. Generally, the only people working are the public service employees, and they are a smaller group.
The government itself will not be able to manage with a longer closure because the PA depends on local work and the economy for its revenue from tax collection. Without tax revenue the PA won’t be able to support workers or pay its employees. It seems there is an attempt to find a balance between the economic needs of the PA and the people on one side, and the health situation on the other. Limited movement inside cities is now allowed for those with permits and for commercial purposes. Our institutional health care capacities are very weak, though. We lack medical equipment, space for quarantining patients and specialists in the multiple fields necessary to address the health crisis. If the virus spreads, the situation will be a disaster.
What has saved people has been the spirit of cooperation, that we are in solidarity with each other. Each person has the ability to give something to their relatives, their friends, their neighbors. There is another sweet thing going on: Because people are staying in their homes, those who have land have started to plant. This also reminds me of the first Intifada, the approach of “Let’s plant some parsley, tomatoes, cucumber, eggplant, squash.” This is a way to lighten expenses and plan ahead for the future.
Q: Badil has been working since 1998 to secure full implementation of the United Nations’ responsibility to protect Palestinian refugees—established as the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in 1949. Around the world, the COVID-19 crisis is demonstrating the urgency of redefining security to prioritize access to health care. How has UNRWA responded?
A: There is a lack of protection, rights and assistance to Palestinian refugees in general. Now in the time of COVID-19, a longstanding crisis has intensified. UNRWA has a budget shortfall [due in part to the Trump administration cutting all US funding to the organization in 2018].
UNRWA has also not provided additional food assistance in the West Bank, even though many more people are in need since they cannot work and thus cannot buy food. In Gaza, UNRWA has continued its ongoing and longstanding food assistance, but has not augmented it. I’ve also been in touch with community leaders in Lebanon. UNRWA has not provided additional food assistance there either, though it asked for help from other international organizations, like the World Food Program. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) has provided some aid to refugees in Lebanon, but it has not been enough, and the distribution was not equitable, either. According to the activists and leaders of community-based organizations I spoke to, those who “know someone” receive aid, and those unaffiliated with a political faction have not received anything. I have heard the same thing about Islamic factions and groups. Each one is distributing to their group through informal processes. These are stubborn divisions in Lebanon, especially in the Ain el-Hilweh refugee camp. Recently, Badil sent $12,000 to Lebanon for families there. This amount can support 100 or 120 families in intense poverty.
Q: Of course, humanitarian aid is not the usual work that Badil does. How does the organization think about its responsibilities when your work is legal advocacy and research?
A: No, this is not our usual work. The current crisis demands that we make adjustments to our action plan to provide some humanitarian assistance to help refugees in difficult circumstances. I am personally very happy that we were able to do something for refugees in Lebanon. Their situation is terrible because Lebanon’s labor laws restrict Palestinian refugees from working in many professions. Then came the Lebanese Revolution in October 2019 and the economic crisis and now the coronavirus crisis.
Since we are not able to carry on with our trainings and educational projects during this crisis, we decided to reallocate items from our budget to this emergency. We also received donations from Palestinians in Israel to support those in Lebanon. In addition, we distributed hand sanitizer, masks and gloves to the three Bethlehem refugee camps—Dheisheh, Aida and Azza. This was not enough of course, but it was urgent and necessary. We collected materials in coordination with the Popular Committees and community-based organizations in the camps. They have databases and information about the families that are in need. So, we arranged for the supplies and worked with the local groups to deliver to families. We included specific terms in our agreements to ensure transparency and maximum fairness in distribution.
Q: Was it hard to get supplies, is your staff working from the office?
A: It was difficult to get the gloves and the masks, but we found someone from Aida Camp who has a small factory to produce hand sanitizer. He cooperated with us to produce 10,000 bottles in a few days, and he gave us a special price since it was a donation to support refugees in an emergency. So, we got them cheaper than the market price.
We closed our office on March 4, and we slowly started to come back to the office on May 4. We set a new schedule to keep the office active and do the work we cannot do remotely. We had developed an online system to keep staff working as a team from home, and this worked for conducting research and issuing written statements. But to complete certain administrative and financial tasks, we have to come to the office. We have to come in for community organizing tasks also, for example to prepare for Nakba Day, which is May 15. We have to go to the office to access our databases, look at image archives and make a slew of phone calls.
Q: How have Israeli authorities approached this crisis in the West Bank? How is Israel meeting its responsibilities? [Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention requires that Israel, as the occupying power, ensure that it use all the necessary preventive means available to “combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”]
A: According to international law, the occupying forces must provide health care and economic assistance to protect people under occupation, and that includes those in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. But Israel has not provided any of this since the PA was established in 1994, and they are not providing it now.
Q: It is stunning to watch a fundamental part of Israel’s closure policies, which have limited the Palestinian presence inside Israel for decades, melt away. About half of the 80,000 Palestinians who usually work in Israel have been laid off due to the coronavirus crisis. Kav LaOved worker’s hotline and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are demanding that an existing sick-day fund be used to pay these workers. But it seems some Palestinian workers were regarded as essential to the Israeli economy, while their lives are considered dispensable.
A: Exactly. And many of the cases of COVID-19 that have occurred in the West Bank are from workers who were in Israel and returned and gave the virus to their families and others. There is also a kind of discrimination against Palestinian workers who cannot work because of the crisis. These are people who work in Israel and for Israeli companies. While Israel is providing assistance for Israelis who can’t work because of the COVID-19 crisis, it does not do the same for the Palestinian workers.
Q: Political prisoners are another group at special risk from Covid-19. Israel has, in over 50 years of occupation, imprisoned over 750,000 people, currently, there are 4,488 Palestinians charged with security related crimes and another 459 charged with being in Israel illegally. UN officials called for the release of all child prisoners, noting that there were 194 Palestinian children in detention as of the end of March. Are there special concerns for political prisoners in Israeli detention at this time? What about Palestinian political prisoners?
A: People are very worried about political prisoners in Israeli jails getting COVID-19, because their immune systems are weak, and they are living in close proximity with each other. I am someone who has lived in prison, and I know how it is. If one person gets sick, everyone else in the room will get infected. Israel is not doing testing and has not taken sufficient steps to protect prisoners, nor has it responded to calls for releasing prisoners, especially those who are ill or elderly. Israel has not even passed along supplies that have been donated to prisoners via the Red Cross.
For his part, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas released a good number of prisoners, especially those who have completed more than half of their sentences and those who have been convicted of less serious crimes.
Q: What do you think of the comparisons between the COVID-19 lockdowns and military curfews that so many Palestinians have experienced?
A: Palestinians are used to being trapped under military curfew, so maybe they know how to cope. But this is different. In a curfew imposed by occupying forces, Palestinians seek to challenge it. They impose a curfew, and we break it. But today, there is not that desire. This time, staying home is required to protect your family, yourself, your neighbors, your people. I think people struggled to adjust to this. People still tried to go out. But when the closure was most intense, it wasn’t easy because Bethlehem was divided into different neighborhoods. It was closed with checkpoints staffed by Palestinian policemen and soldiers. Other streets were closed with concrete blocks or barrels filled with concrete. These separated the refugee camps, villages and towns of the Bethlehem area from each other—though they are usually all part of one metropolitan area. Now the checkpoints are gone, and they have moved the concrete barriers to allow cars to pass—but the concrete blocks are still there. They could easily move them back.