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Palestine under lockdown: what's new?

An empty street in Nablus, Palestine

There can be no place on earth easier to lock down than the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The entire infrastructure of the Israeli occupation is designed to restrict Palestinian movement through an ever expanding network of checkpoints, walls, watchtowers, curfews and digital surveillance. Palestine, we might say, has long been a laboratory of social distancing.

For the past three years I’ve been carrying out a research project on the history of Bethlehem in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That was a time of great mobility and prosperity for the town’s residents. They traded all over the world and infused Palestine with a new form of cosmopolitanism. Conditions today could not be more different.

When Palestine’s first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Bethlehem on 5 March, the town was isolated from the outside world with remarkable speed. Working “in coordination” with the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli military was intent on ensuring the virus did not spread into Israel. Given Israel had already constructed an 8-metre-high concrete wall around the city back in 2003, this was not a difficult task.

Two days later, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced a 30-day lockdown across the West Bank, involving the closure of schools and the prohibition of all but essential travel between Palestinian governorates. A quick glance at a map of the West Bank reveals these governorates to be an archipelago of tiny islands within a sea of Israeli military zones and settlements, all patrolled by a dense network of checkpoints. Stopping movement between the governates required no new installations to be put in place - only the activation of the pre-existing structures thanks to the Palestinian Authority's willingness to cooperate with the Israeli military.

Similar closures were imposed by the Hamas government in Gaza. Many wondered what had changed. Hadn’t the people of Gaza already been living under military blockade since 2006? Little wonder that conspiracy theories began circulating, claiming the virus is an Israeli (or sometimes Israeli-Chinese) invention – another tactic designed to contain and suppress Palestinian resistance. 

The truth is that the lockdown is desperately needed to protect Palestine’s fragile health system. Long before the outbreak of Covid-19, Palestinian hospitals suffered acute shortages of personal protective equipment, ventilators and intensive care units. In the entire Gaza Strip, there are just 40 ICU beds for a population of 2 million people and they have long since run out of testing kits. The supply of such items was already severely restricted by the Israeli blockade. What chance of obtaining them in the midst of a global pandemic as the rich countries of the world, including Israel, scramble to secure their own supplies? 

Despite the challenges, the Occupied Territories have so far achieved admirable results in containing Covid-19. Two months after the initial outbreak, 547 cases have been recorded with only four deaths from a population of over 4.5 million. To put that in context, far more Palestinians have contracted and died from Coronavirus in the US than they have in Palestine itself. Israel, by contrast, had recorded 16,567 cases and 264 deaths by the same time, despite having one of the strongest healthcare systems in the world.

This seems to me indicative of a wider trend. Countries in the global south simply cannot afford to let the virus spread to the levels witnessed in Europe and North America. They are painfully aware their health systems would quickly collapse. The dilemma between protecting jobs and saving lives is not an issue in countries like Palestine.

But the necessity for such drastic measures brings dire consequences. Already high levels of unemployment in Palestine have gone through the roof, not least among the large numbers employed in the black market who have no access to support. Speaking to friends in Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem, I have been struck by how different our experiences of Covid-19 really are. There is no safety net for the street vendors, construction workers and taxi drivers who make up the majority of the workforce there.

Meanwhile the tourism industry that provides the bedrock of Bethlehem’s economy has collapsed. Easter should have been one of the high points of the year, both in spiritual and economic terms. The start of Ramadan followed swiftly after, but this year it has been celebrated in an altogether more sombre fashion. Only immediate family members gather for iftar and there is no music or celebration on the streets.

Some commentators in Israel have seen signs that a more humane view of Palestinians is emerging. Palestinian labourers from the Occupied Territories have been given permission to reside in Israel during the crisis. Palestinian citizens of Israel who work in the health system have been portrayed in a positive light for the first time by sections of the Israeli media. Some even say that the experience of lockdown is making Jewish Israelis more empathetic to the conditions Palestinians have been experiencing for decades.

I would love to believe Israel will emerge from the crisis in a spirit of cooperation. But I’m not sure this will be the case. The lockdown is already being lifted by the Israeli government, confident it has the resources to cope with the circulation of the virus from this point. The Palestinian Authority, by contrast, has just announced a 30-day extension of the lockdown, fully aware its fragile health system will receive no assistance from Israel. In this light, the “empathy” with Palestinian experiences appears more like a form of temporary voyeurism, much like the art installation in Jerusalem that gave Jewish Israelis a virtual experience of being in a Palestinian living room.

Meanwhile, Israeli military raids on Palestinian refugee camps continue and the political talk has switched to Israel’s plan to annex large areas of the West Bank in line with Trump’s “Deal of the Century”. Apparently, Israel has the right to occupy and annex Palestinian lands, but no responsibility to help the local population deal with a public health emergency.

As I write up my book about Bethlehem’s golden age of global connectivity, I cannot help thinking how far the pendulum has swung. Space has been steadily shrinking for Palestinians ever since Britain imposed its colonial rule over the country and facilitated the building of the state of Israel. Bethlehem is no different to any other Palestinian town in this sense. Where once the town’s merchant families enjoyed remarkably cosmopolitan lifestyles, moving in and out of Ottoman Palestine, they are now subjected to the same isolation and segregation as all other Palestinians.

Covid-19 has reinforced this to me in the strongest terms. The imposition of a strict lockdown in the Occupied Territories only seems to highlight that this has long been a “normal” way of living for Palestinians.  “The rest of the world is getting a taste of what it’s like to be Palestinian”, my friends in Bethlehem tell me with bitter irony. But it is only a brief taste. For Europeans, the Covid-19 lockdowns are a colossal shock to our otherwise privileged lives. The wealth at our disposal means we are quickly finding ways to lift the restrictions. For Palestinians there is no such luxury. The lockdown continues without an end in sight. Covid-19 has intensified the experience, but when the virus finally disappears, the occupation remains.

Jacob Norris is Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at the University of Sussex

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By: Jacob Norris
Last updated: Sunday, 22 November 2020

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