Bahbah: The Coronavirus Looms Large Over Easter in the Holy Land

Posted on Apr 9, 2020

By: Bishara A. Bahbah/Arab America Featured Columnist, April 8, 2020

Not since the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ has the Holy Land seen a gloomier Easter week like the one it is witnessing at the present time. Compared to many parts of the world, the Holy Land has had the unwelcome distinction of living through an untold number of disasters, especially, during the past 100 years; the Holy Land has been in a continual state of war arising from the Zionist movement’s quest of establishing a Jewish state in the midst of a largely Arab-Palestinian population in Palestine.

The few months’ old global COVID-19 pandemic has not spared the Holy Land from its wrath and its deadly effects. Consequently, even unlike times of war, there will be no church services [even though this Easter will pass without people attending churches or celebrating together, church services are broadcast over the internet] commemorating Jesus’ sacrifice to atoning the sins of human beings and there will be no celebrations of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and His ascent to heaven. Instead, there will be closures, lockdowns, and even curfews in the Palestinian and Israeli parts of the Holy Land.

The coronavirus has had a major societal and economic impact on Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem. It has exposed the weaknesses of the Palestinian health sector reeling from decades of occupation by Israel. It has demonstrated that the virus knows no boundaries, no religion, and no political affiliation. It has forced Israelis and Palestinians to cooperate, albeit with limitations dictated by the occupier, in their fight against this deadly disease. It has led to an unusually effective response by the Palestinian leadership, a predominantly disciplined reaction by the Palestinian population, a host of unprecedented challenges, and abundant lessons for other nations to learn on how to focus on prevention and how to help one another in times of need.

The Casualties

Image: Bahbah: The Coronavirus Looms Large Over Easter in the Holy Land

Bahbah: The Coronavirus Looms Large Over Easter in the Holy Land Photo: corona.ps

To begin with, let me state the facts. There have been 261 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Palestinian areas. Those cases led to one death and 44 recoveries. As of April 7, 2020, at 9:37 p.m. local time, the number of Palestinians that were tested for the coronavirus was 15,140. There are 1,750 people who are in quarantine under the direct supervision of the Palestinian Ministry of Health and 12,342 who are in-home quarantine, also under the supervision of Palestinian health authorities (To get the most up-to-date data, go to www.corona.ps). These numbers pale in comparison to the high number of Israelis who have tested positive for the virus. In Israel, there were 9,248 confirmed cases and 65 deaths as of the evening of April 7. Those who have recovered were up to 770 people.

Palestine’s Healthcare Capabilities

The pandemic has exposed how woefully inadequate and ill-equipped the Palestinian healthcare system is, especially in the Gaza Strip. According to the Palestinian health ministry in Ramallah, the West Bank and Gaza, including East Jerusalem hospitals, have a total of 295 ventilators and 375 ICU beds. Gaza is in need of basic disinfectants, corona lab materials, protective equipment, ICU beds, and ventilators.

According to the head of WHO’s Gaza office, Abdel Nasser Soboh, all of Gaza’s health facilities have a total of 62 ventilators and 15 of those were already being used on patients with other conditions. He stated that “the health system in the Gaza Strip can deal with 100 cases without considering it a heavy burden, but if the numbers increase, Gaza will be unable to control the situation.” It was estimated that Gaza was in need of an additional 150 ventilators on an urgent basis.

Israel is very much aware of the risk in the Gaza Strip in the event of the broad spread of the disease. Additionally, Israel is fully cognizant that the world would come down hard on it as the vast majority of countries still view it as the occupying power with full responsibility of Gaza’s welfare under various articles of the Geneva Conventions. As a result, Israel has increased the amount of medical equipment sent into Gaza to include 20 ventilators, 300 testing kits, some 50,000 masks, and a large supply of equipment ordered from China. Israel has indicated that it would allow Gaza patients to be transported to East Jerusalem hospitals for treatment should the need arise.

International organizations have stepped up their assistance to Gaza with Israel’s cooperation. The World Health Organization (WHO) has donated an unspecified number of ventilators to Gaza, 1000 protective suits, and several hundred testing kits.

As of the writing of this article, it was revealed that Palestinian intelligence sources have been able to acquire 20,000 testing kits from China, Arab and Islamic countries as well as various international organizations. The Palestinian health minister, Dr. Mai Alkaila, has told me in a phone conversation that her ministry stands ready and will supply Gaza with whatever Gaza needs, given her ministry’s available resources.

Why Has Palestine Been More Effective in Fighting the Pandemic than Israel?
Bahbah: The Coronavirus Looms Large Over Easter in the Holy Land

Image: Palestinian workers get ready to disinfect mosques and churches in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Photo: Majdi Mohammed/AP

Palestinian workers get ready to disinfect mosques and churches in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Photo: Majdi Mohammed/AP

Given the meager resources available to the Palestinians in the Holy Land, it is somewhat of a miracle that the number of coronavirus cases among the Palestinians has been so low compared to Israel. However, this is due in large to a number of factors:

The PA preceded Israel in implementing strict measures of confinement and lockdowns once the virus broke out in Bethlehem on March 5. The two key decisionmakers in Palestine were the Palestinian Minister of Health, Dr. Alkaila, who is a nurse, a physician, and who holds a Ph.D. in public health, and the Palestinian Prime Minister, Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh. They deserve much of the credit for demonstrating awareness of the health risks involved with the virus before it was declared a worldwide pandemic. The key concept in fighting the virus was a focus on prevention as it was much easier to prevent the widespread of the virus than dealing with its deadly consequences.

  • The ministry of health worked to identify and map infection hotspots, encircle them, and gradually expand the closure of the West Bank. The ministry realized early on the risks of contacts with Israel and Israelis, including settlements and residents of East Jerusalem.
  • The PA declared a state of emergency early during the crisis and Palestinian security forces were ordered into the streets and at the entrances and exits of towns under their control to enforce health ministry instructions. Stay-at-home meant no social visits and nothing but quick trips to the grocery stores, bakeries, and pharmacies or doctors’ offices.
  • In Gaza, UNRWA asked people to stay home and not to go to the food distribution centers for their quarterly rations. Instead, UNRWA sent out volunteers in protective gear with the rations and distributed them to people’s homes so as not to have people form lines and be in contact with one another.
  • The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Ramallah asked Hamas in Gaza to use the same guidelines it imposed in the West Bank. Prime Minister Shtayyeh even announced, as an inducement to Hamas, that starting in April, PA officials in the Gaza Strip would return to work based on the previous framework, before the punitive measures of cutting salaries and employee benefits were imposed by PA President Mahmoud Abbas. The absence of Abbas from the day-to-day affairs of the PA, most likely due to his poor health, made it easier to take such a bold decision by Shtayyeh.
  • The PA also banned the entry of Israel’s Arab citizens into the West Bank thus diminishing the exposure of the more rampant virus from Israel.
  • In areas where Palestinian security forces are banned, local volunteers from various village councils manned what became known as the “Barriers of Love” at the entrances of their villages to stop strangers from going into their villages and to check that those allowed in do not have any symptoms of the virus. These and other checkpoints also search for returning Palestinian workers who might have been infected while working in Israel or any of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Sadly, the vast majority of new coronavirus cases recorded in the West Bank originated from these returning laborers.
  • By comparison, Israel was slow in implementing lockdowns and had a very serious problem with the ultra-Orthodox Jews complying with the order of distancing, not gathering, and closing their synagogues and yeshivas. Several ultra-Orthodox towns have been estimated to be the source of more than 30 percent of the COVID-19 cases in Israel. Israel has finally decided to impose a curfew in the entire country beginning Wednesday, April 8, to coincide with the beginning of the Jewish Passover.

New Spirit of “Israeli-Palestinian Cooperation”

Image: A paramedic with Israel’s Magen David Adom medical service tests a man for COVID-19 at a drive-through site in Jabal Mukaber. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

A paramedic with Israel’s Magen David Adom medical service tests a man for COVID-19 at a drive-through site in Jabal Mukaber. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

With the advent of the coronavirus to the Middle East, both Israelis and Palestinians have quickly come to the realization that their fate in the Holy Land is intertwined and if they did not cooperate and work together quickly, both peoples would be doomed. As early as the middle of February, the Palestinian leadership took a pivotal decision to forego its resolution not to cooperate with Israel and to deal with Israel seriously, at least, when it came to the issue of the coronavirus. A joint Palestinian-Israeli health task force was set up to coordinate activities as they relate to the containment of the spread of the virus.

Initially, Israel supplied the Palestinians with testing kits and lab work. They both shared what they were learning about the virus and how it was spreading and means of containment.

Israel allowed Palestinians to import medical supplies, including testing kits and ventilators, without delay. It even permitted Palestinian security forces to enter into what Israel considers the borders of Jerusalem, an area on the other side of the monstrous Wall, to break up a fight between two rival groups. Additionally, Israel gave the green light to the PA to prepare the two major hospitals in East Jerusalem, Al-Makassed and August Victoria, in the event they are needed to treat Palestinians from East Jerusalem.

On the other hand, Israel sometimes or, as some would say often, acts in a bipolar fashion. Two days ago, Israeli police forces arrested and beat up the Palestinian minister in charge of Jerusalem affairs and made him wear a face mask that was tainted with blood. Israeli forces were recorded dumping a Palestinian laborer who was infected with the virus on the Palestinian side of a checkpoint without providing him with the necessary medical care.

At the same time, Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens has been discriminatory and unfair. Israel’s Arabs have not been provided with sufficient testing kits for the virus as other neighboring Jewish communities have been. And, in East Jerusalem, even Israel’s mayor, complained that residents there have not been provided with adequate testing kits. Israel’s Ministry of Health has not translated necessary forms from Hebrew into Arabic regarding certain benefits available to all residents. And, when East Jerusalemites call a coronavirus hotline, the responders speak only Hebrew and are unable to help them because of the language barrier.

The biggest challenge right now facing the Palestinians in the West Bank is the return, because of the Jewish Passover, of some 35,000 Palestinian laborers who normally work in Israel. Initially, it was agreed with the PA that these laborers would receive proper housing and care while working in Israeli factories and construction sites. Unfortunately, neither proper housing nor medical care was provided to them while working in Israel. Many of them contracted the virus while working alongside other Israelis who were free to leave the job sites and go home on a daily basis.

Upon the return to the West Bank of one such group of Palestinian laborers that was comprised of 25 people, it was found that 15 of them had contracted the virus. Israel has thus far refused to test all returning laborers to ensure that they would not carry the virus back to their families in the West Bank. In fact, Israel has not decided whether they would be willing to pay for the tests and whether those tests are to be conducted in Israel or once these workers arrive in the areas under the PA’s control.

The returning workers who, because of their dire economic conditions, are forced to work in Israel to support their families, could pose the most serious health risk hitherto to the population of the West Bank.

Concluding Remarks

It did not have to take the coronavirus to show the resilience and goodness of the Palestinian people. But the crisis ignited a spotlight on those qualities. When the Bethlehem area (Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala) was under lock and key, truckloads of food were donated by the people of Hebron, among other cities, to the people of the Bethlehem region.

No one has to ask for food or any supplies that they need for their homes, their children, or the elderly. If someone knows of a family in need, they place a call to a volunteer group and that group promptly delivers what is needed or requested for that family. No questions asked. People who are asked to self-quarantine are sent a food package on a weekly basis without having to ask. They receive a weekly call from the health department to check up-on them. And, when their quarantine period ends, the health department goes to their home, performs the necessary test and, within a day or two, they receive a call to let them know of the result. Farmers throughout the West Bank have donated seeds for people to plant their gardens with fruits, vegetables, and flowers.

Even though this Easter will pass without people attending churches or celebrating together, church services are broadcast over the internet.  The spirit of Easter and the sacrifice of Jesus Christ is demonstrating itself in the love, generosity, and resilience of the Palestinian people. That spirit will not be dampened by the coronavirus nor will it be stifled by an occupation which, God willing, will soon be replaced with an independent and sovereign Palestinian state.

Prof. Bishara Bahbah was the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem based “Al-Fajr” newspaper between 1983-84. He was a member of the Palestinian delegation to the Peace Talks on Arms Control and Regional Security. He taught at Harvard and was the associate director of its Kennedy School’s Institute for Social and Economic Policy in the Middle East.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.