North Africa, West Asia

Palestinians in East Jerusalem: living under a deadly virus and a violent occupation

The coronavirus pandemic is revealing the ugly realities and the injustice of occupation which can no longer be ignored.

Victoria Brittain
16 April 2020
The East Gate of Jerusalem
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Lawrence OP / Flickr. Some rights reserved (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

An atmosphere of acute fear is sweeping through Palestinian life in occupied East Jerusalem as Israeli government measures enforced to limit the spread of the Corona virus have increased the community’s experience of isolation, dispossession, powerlessness and acute poverty.

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, chair and professor in the Social Work and Law Faculty at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Global Chair in Law at Queen Mary University in London and a leading Palestinian social-worker and socio-legal scholar, is a resident of the Old City. She spoke during a Zoom meeting of the unparalleled situation of fear and desperation on every front she is seeing

According to her, senior Palestinian officials – the Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and the Governor of Jerusalem – have been arrested, and then released, with the condition that, they “do not work for the Palestinian Authority in Jerusalem and do not wander in the city for 14 days". Community initiatives to distribute food parcels have been violently disrupted; education is completely fragmented with children at home, some of them with neither laptops nor wifi, and now often hungry since schools are closed; the six Palestinian hospitals’ supplies of equipment and medicine were already precarious and have further deteriorated after 2018 due to the American decision to cut $25 million in funding to East Jerusalem hospitals. No one has any illusion they could confront a wave of Coronavirus acute patients.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian explained that “The Coronavirus is being used as an opportunity to further dismember Palestinian society, and destroy its capacity to function in Jerusalem, and to confront this new health emergency alongside the deepening impoverishment of the people. The Palestinian Authority is not being allowed to work, and the 81 community organisations which have mobilised themselves as the Jerusalem Alliance, are being targeted and their efforts often dismantled. There is a constant litany of arrests, evictions, food parcel confiscations, street vendors’ fruit and vegetables seized, shop keepers harassed, while un-payable fines are being demanded for supposed violation of Coronavirus rules, such as going to the police station to support a relative being released.”

She added, “Fear is everywhere, on every street corner and in every house. And this is amid complete uncertainty of what the virus can mean and when it can strike. There is no information, too much is in Hebrew only, and our groups work on translations as much as they can. And everywhere there is fear of hunger too, with livelihoods uprooted by the new rules. Meanwhile, every one of us sees the settler presence in East Jerusalem increasing, as is Israeli state intrusion into every aspect of life, and using the Shabbak (intelligence services) to invade our privacy. Plus, we learn how they target every neighbourhood differently, for instance, undercover police with dogs recently attacked Shu’fat refugee camp arresting nine people, and injuring others, but youth arrests and harassment are everywhere. There is police violence every day.”

Palestinians living in Jerusalem are already living in a Kafkaesque world of endlessly shifting and contradictory bureaucratic rules to every aspect of their lives. For outsiders, the uniqueness of this level of stress and uncertainty is almost impossible to imagine, and even if understood is impossible to convey with adequate force. There is inescapable and particular on-going acute anxiety about the future of these 420,000 Palestinians, as Israel’s byzantine laws on residency rights have seen the gradual ethnic cleansing of 15,000 Palestinians from East Jerusalem since 1967.

Palestinians living in Jerusalem are already living in a Kafkaesque world of endlessly shifting and contradictory bureaucratic rules

Among the measures Israel has implemented are those which oblige a Palestinian to prove that the city is “the centre of life” for them to retain their residency. Lawyers have described this policy as a violation of international law, causing “the institutionalisation of statelessness and forced displacement of Palestinians from East Jerusalem.” Another law provides that any “breach of loyalty” by an individual or a family member can see residency withdrawn, and there is also a ban on family reunification. Thousands of Palestinian families where one spouse is an Israeli citizen and the other is a resident of the Occupied Territories have been affected by the law, forced to split apart, move abroad, or live in Israel in fear of constant deportation.

Any casual visitor over the last two decades will have remarked the huge transformation of the historic narrow streets of the Old City where Israeli flags, armed settlers, and a military presence have escalated. It is the same in formerly Palestinian districts outside the Old City, such as Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan, where Palestinian homes have been demolished, or Israeli settlers have simply moved in and taken over all or part of a house owned by a Palestinian family for generations.

Since the US announcement in December 2017 to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Palestinians living in the city have faced escalating threats to their future. New laws passed in 2018 threaten further ethnic cleansing. The first expanded the reach of the “breach of loyalty” grounds for the Minister of Interior to revoke the residency rights of any Palestinian in Jerusalem. A second saw the ban on family unification – introduced as an emergency regulation in 2003 following the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 – renewed for the 15th year and made a permanent law.

Hanan Ashrawi, a leading PLO official, commented, "By unethically stripping the residency of Palestinians from Jerusalem and depriving the rights of those Palestinians to remain in their own city, the Israeli government is acting in defiance of international law and is violating international human rights and humanitarian laws." Her views were echoed in a chorus of outrage by numerous lawyers and international human rights groups. Human Rights Watch noted, “entrenched discrimination against Palestinians in Jerusalem, including residency policies that imperil their legal status, feeds the alienation of the city’s residents.”

Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, spoke too of the acute anxiety among many of her neighbouring families of the Coronavirus threat for their relatives in Israeli prisons. Rumours of infections in various prisons race through social media, no visits are allowed, no reliable information is released: “One hundred prisoners at Al-Moscobiyeh Prison in Jerusalem and 19 others at Ashkelon Prison have already been forced into isolation after coming into contact with someone suspected of having the illness. Prisoners in Ashkelon are reported to be in isolation after one was in contact with an Israeli physician who had tested positive for the virus five days earlier. Worryingly, reports have also noted that prison guards have searched cells routinely without wearing protective gloves and face masks.” How many Coronavirus deaths will be counted in these prisons full of men, women and children?

A group of Israeli, Palestinian and International NGOs, including Oxfam and the London-based Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights, released a strong statement on Israel’s legal responsibilities to Palestinians in the current Coronavirus crisis over the weekend: “Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically provides that an occupier has the duty of ensuring and maintaining the ‘adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics’. We already know that that there is an alarming lack of equipment, including personal protective equipment, consistent with local shortages and compounded by the long-term restrictions imposed by the blockade, as well as insufficient numbers of trained healthcare workers in both Gaza and the West Bank. In addition to its own citizens and residents, Israel must also fulfil its duty to all protected persons living under its effective control, including in Gaza, and take active steps to ensure that they have adequate access to medical care.”

Which governments will now respond to this challenge by publicly putting pressure on Israel to abide by international law and fullfil their responsibilities to Palestinians on this dramatic health issue? The US actions over the last two and a half years have encouraged the Israeli government policy of sweeping measures towards the destruction of Palestinian society in Jerusalem. As with the inhumane measures relentlessly squeezing Gaza, the international community has chosen impotence, although around the world civil society has become ever more vocal in support of Palestinian voices revealing ugly and complex realities of injustice which can no longer be ignored.

The Israeli media had two stories over the weekend which serve to highlight the value system in the grotesque power imbalance in the world: Israeli news channel 13 reported that bodies of Jews from around the world are being flown to Israel to be buried, while Palestinians live under unbearable fears; while Haaretz Hebrew edition reported that Hamas in Gaza will be “allowed” to receive much needed respiratory machines, only if they reveal information about disappeared Israelis.

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Boris Johnson's government stands accused of 'COVID cronyism', after handing out staggering sums of money to controversial private firms to fight COVID-19. Often the terms of these deals are kept secret, with no value-for-money checks or penalties for repeated failures which cost lives. And many major contracts have gone directly to key Tory donors and allies – without competition.

As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

Hear from:

Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Jolyon Maugham Barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

Layla Moran Liberal Democrat MP (TBC)

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

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