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“There is a double siege around Bethlehem,” says Abdelfattah Abusrour.
Aida refugee camp sits on the outskirts of the city. Its residents live in cramped housing blocks, packed tightly together, in the shadow of the 750-kilometer wall that separates Israel from the West Bank territories it occupies. “On one side we have the siege within,” explains Abusrour, founder of the camp’s Al-Rowwad cultural center, speaking over the phone. “The Palestinian Authority saying that everyone should stay at home, for their safety, and the safety of others. The other siege is forced by the Israeli occupation, of course.”
For Abusrour, the prospect of a coronavirus pandemic in Aida camp is extremely worrying. “Aida refugee camp is very dense and there are about 6,000 people in a space of 0.07 square kilometers,” he said. “The houses are crowded. Families are living on top of each other. … There is no possibility for a family, for example, to isolate an elderly person in a room or whatever because most of the time the whole family lives in one room.”
He adds, “If coronavirus defuses in bigger numbers in Palestine it would be completely catastrophic.”
As of Friday, there have been 193 cases of COVID-19 recorded in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Bethlehem, the epicenter of the Palestinian outbreak, has been locked down for almost four weeks, with other Palestinian towns and cities restricting movement and association in order to stem the spread of the disease.
But whatever fears they may have of the pandemic, a lockdown is not a new phenomenon to the people of Aida. “We are under surveillance 24 hours a day” says Abusrour.
Mustafa Barghouti, a physician who was the runner-up in the last Palestinian presidential election and is a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s central committee, says the coronavirus is an unprecedented challenge.
“The infrastructure we have is very poor,” he explains. “I think all we have is no more than 130 to 140 ventilators in the whole of the West Bank, and a much smaller number in Gaza. We have been struggling to get protective material, such as protective gowns, and especially masks.”
Knowing that medical infrastructure will be overwhelmed by a large influx of coronavirus patients, organizations like the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, led by Barghouti, are focusing on prevention, distributing information both online and on the doorstep. “We have to concentrate on prevention, because we cannot afford to have so many cases. If we have many cases, we will be in a disastrous situation.”
It’s a policy similar to that being employed in countries across the world. But in the face of a pandemic that shows no respect for nationality or ethnicity, anyone hoping that the Israeli grip on the Palestinian territories would loosen would be disappointed.
“The Israeli army and the Israeli occupation forces are hampering our work in a very bad way,” he said. “They haven’t eased the siege on Gaza, and in the West Bank they have been invading areas that are under curfew because of quarantine procedures.”
Twenty miles away from Aida refugee camp, the city of Hebron is a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Despite the city introducing severe restrictions on movement to curb the virus, Israeli military patrols in the city have not been halted. “On a nightly basis we hear gunfire,” describes Amena (not her real name), who has lived in Hebron her whole life. “They go into weddings, they go to tribal law sessions and what have you, and that is something that the Palestinian Authority cannot control.”
Three weeks ago, a 15-year-old boy was shot and killed at a protest near Nablus, in the northern West Bank, and on Monday three teenagers were arrested and detained in Hebron. On Sunday, Israeli navy gunboats fired upon Palestinian shipping vessels off the coast of Gaza, while Israeli warplanes and artillery struck targets northwest of Gaza City. The Israel Defense Forces claimed these attacks were in retaliation to rockets being fired into southern Israel.
In Hebron, Amena claims, “some of the soldiers were actually seen spitting on cars and properties, which prompted the Palestinian Authority to disinfect the whole area.” Videos have surfaced online showing a soldier spitting on the ground, though IDF officials reject the allegation that it was deliberate.
For people across Europe and North America, the prospect of an enforced lockdown, of curfews, is alien. The sudden barriers that have been erected against freedom of movement and association are shocking. But in some ways, this new reality for the Western world has been a Palestinian reality for decades. The Gaza Strip has been blockaded for 14 years. Across the Arab world, millions of people of Palestinian descent are living in exile, denied the freedom to return to their homes since 1948. In the West Bank, freedom of movement has long been subject to random checkpoints, Israeli control of major roads, and, during major flare-ups of violence, curfews and forced lockdowns.
“It’s sad for the younger people,” says one man in his 50s who owns a small farm outside Bethlehem. “They get bored, and have nothing to do. But for me? The Israelis stopped my freedom to move before. What does it change that I have no freedom to move now?”
Amena can well remember the Second Intifada from 2000–05, a period of intensified conflict between Palestinians and Israel that resulted in the deaths of over 4,000 people: “They’re used to it, especially the people my age who can remember 2002, when the occupation of the West Bank took place and a system of curfews had taken place.
“So do the people from the ’90s or late ’80s, with the First Intifada, when you had that system of closed borders and curfews and you were not allowed to go out of the house,” she says. For those too young to remember, lockdown may be a new state of affairs—but their parents and grandparents have seen it all before.