My name is Abdulhakim Sabbah, and I live in the city of Nablus, in the heart of Palestine midway between Jerusalem in the south and Bethlehem in the north.
I have been the director of Project Hope since 2005. It’s one of the most active charities in Nablus. We organise educational and recreational activities, mainly for children. I am also the founder of the Nablus Festival of Culture and Arts.
For two and a half months, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, life stopped in Palestine. All businesses and schools were closed on 5 March, when the Palestinian Authority officially started the lockdown.
We were confined to our homes, and virtually everything stopped. But we do not have a strong government that can help people if they stop working. We do not have unemployment benefits, or social assistance. This has especially affected people who work in the informal sector, or what we call ‘daily basis’.
A few days ago, at the beginning of June, life returned to a certain level of normality. Life is not completely normal, but businesses are opening, so people are going back to their jobs.
We’ve not had many cases of COVID-19 in Nablus. I think we’ve had three in the city and three in a village nearby. Most of the cases have been in East Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron.
But there has been a problem with organising coronavirus tests in Palestine. Not enough tests have been done because the authority does not have enough test tubes. A few tests are done every day. I think that for the size of our population, we need to have something like 1,500 tests a day. But apparently they only do a few hundred a day.
Due to the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian police can’t have checkpoints to test people for the virus. The Israeli forces don’t allow our police free access to villages and elsewhere, even if those villages have people infected with the coronavirus.
Nobody is watching what is the Israel government is doing in the occupied territories
In the meantime, the Israeli occupation forces are continuing with their plans to annex the West Bank. Countries around the world are busy with the pandemic –nobody is watching what is happening in the occupied territories. Nobody is watching what the Israeli government is planning – and implementing – in regard to the annexation of most of the West Bank. This will happen in July 2020.
I am slowly reopening Project Hope, but the authority has not yet allowed us to organise classes or recreational activities for children. I am still waiting for this to happen, and I don’t know when we will be allowed to restart these activities.
I think our government is also a little bit lost. They are waiting for something to happen, and everybody is afraid of the second wave of the coronavirus. So, nothing is clear.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, we are not allowed to have volunteers from abroad. Foreigners are not permitted to enter the country, so this has also handicapped our work a lot.
Financially speaking, it is very tough for us, especially because everywhere in the world is in crisis. We have been asking people to donate to our organisation. We have mainly asked former volunteers for donations, and we have received some.
No education for months
Children living in the refugee camps and everywhere in the West Bank have not had access to education since 5 March. The plan is to reopen the schools at the beginning of August. We will have three weeks of intensive classes to finish the current school year. Then, at the end of August, we will start the new school year.
I am very worried because I need to come up with new ways to teach children safely. As I cannot depend on international volunteers coming to Palestine, I have to think of alternative ways to support the education of local children. I am currently considering online classes, but it may be difficult to keep children focused. My colleagues and I have a lot to consider, but we will keep trying to do our best.
The most difficult part for me is that my six-year-old son is with his mother in Paris. We speak via Skype for two hours every day, but it’s not enough. He is very young, so it is difficult to hold his attention. We play online games together and that is the best way to keep him entertained during our long calls.
Our conversations are also an opportunity for me to speak to him in Arabic, to help him continue to learn my language. I speak to him in Arabic, but he always responds in French because he is not used to speaking Arabic in France. He keeps asking me: “When are you coming?” I don’t know because the borders are closed, and the airports are closed. It is difficult living through this.
The only positive aspect of my current situation is that I have been able to spend a lot more time with my elderly parents in our village, Awarta. During the lockdown, I stayed with my parents and two brothers. It is the first time in more than twenty years that I’ve spent such a long time with my parents. I am glad that I have been able to spend more time with them, but I hope to see my son soon.
[As told to Jáfia Naftali Câmara]
Poverty and overcrowding in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have made people particularly susceptible to the virus, prompting the Palestinian Authority to declare a state of emergency on 5 March and impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering the territory.
An estimated 53,000 extra families have been pushed into poverty as a result of the emergency measures. The authority has been unable to offer relief to many of those affected, while UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees) has faced difficulties raising funds to help the territory.
In November 2019, the US government announced that it would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank illegal under international law. In January 2020, US President Donald Trump presented a peace plan for Israel and Palestine that would not require Israel to give up any of the territory it has assumed in the West Bank. This was immediately rejected by Palestine, but Israel is pressing ahead with its implementation after embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu finally managed to form a coalition government.