In the West Bank, Coronavirus Finds Settlers and Palestinians Inseparable

More than 30,000 Palestinians work in Jewish settlements, and the virus has surfaced among both populations

Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
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People with masks are shopping at the "Rami Levy" supermarket in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, West Bank, March 15, 2020.
People with masks are shopping at the "Rami Levy" supermarket in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, West Bank, March 15, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf

On the metal detectors at the entrance of the Rami Levy supermarket in the Gush Etzion West Bank settlement bloc, a poster in Hebrew and Arabic reads that residents of the Palestinians towns of Bethlehem, Beit Sahur, Beit Jala and Rafidia are forbidden from entering. The notice at the popular supermarket that serves both Israeli settlers and Palestinians sums up the local reality.

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Israel announced that Palestinian laborers from the Bethlehem area are not allowed to enter the Israel proper from the West Bank, so they don’t come into contact with Israelis, but there are areas of the West Bank where there are both Israelis and Palestinians and where such a policy is impossible to enforce. The two populations seem separate, but the coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated that they are more intertwined than one might think.

Outside the Rami Levy supermarket, settlers from Gush Etzion lined up Sunday after the food retailer set limits on the number of shoppers allowed inside at any given time. One young man took the opportunity to provide hand sanitizer to everyone in line. Inside, Israelis and Palestinians worked side-by-side, most of them wearing gloves, and a few donning masks.

Among the shoppers stocking up for fear of stricter limitations to come was Akiva, a resident of the settlement of Efrat, who said he had come to shop at his wife’s request.

A notice at the entrance of the Rami Levy supermarket in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, West Bank, March 15, 2020. "Bethlehem, Beit Sahur, Beit Jala, Rafidia and Wadi Ramel: Entrance is forbidden"Credit: Meged Gozani

“We’re feeling it the most at prayer in synagogue,” he said. “I prayed in the women’s section this morning, because the main section already had ten worshippers,” referring to the new restrictions banning gatherings of more than 10 people in one space.

Two Palestinians from the village of Surif, said that their IDs had been checked when they arrived to ensure that they were not from Bethlehem. They too came to stock up. Who knows what will happen tomorrow, they mused, while piling food into their cart.

The air of uncertainty was also present among Palestinians crossing through the Qalandiya checkpoint Monday morning. An estimated 87,000 Palestinians living in the West Bank have work permits allowing them to work in Israel.

Salim, a Palestinian from the Ramallah area who has a cleaning job at an East Jerusalem school, was at the checkpoint when his employer called and told him to return home. All schools were closed and there was no work.

“We try to follow the reports from Israel, but we are forced to live with the uncertainty. Will there be work tomorrow or not? How long can this go on?” he wondered.

Last week, Salim said, Palestinians from the Bethlehem area tried to surreptitiously cross into Israel through that checkpoint, causing hours-long delays. Their attempts failed because the magnetic card for every worker notes his address. They were all sent home.

Shoppers outside the Rami Levy supermarket in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, West Bank, March 15, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Abed Dari, a field coordinator at Kav LaOved, an Israeli non-profit organization for the protection of worker’s rights, told Haaretz that the reduced economic activity in Israel is already being felt on the Palestinian side. “This morning, I received calls from 30 workers who are employed by an East Jerusalem hotel. They said that their employer had given them two options:Iimmediate dismissal or taking an unpaid leave of absence for six months,” he said.

Additional hardship

These workers face additional hardship since they do not receive unemployment benefits, Dari added. It’s unclear whether employers will have to compensate Palestinian workers if a complete closure is imposed on the West Bank. In a different context, when closures are imposed for security reasons, employers are not obliged to pay.    

More than 30,000 Palestinians work in Jewish settlements. At the entrance to Ma’aleh Adumim on Sunday morning, a 60-year-old woman was making her way through a group of Palestinians gathered near the entrance to settlement. “Has anyone seen Walid?” she asked.

When asked who Walid was, she said he was her cleaner. “There’s no one like him. I wouldn’t hire anyone else to clean my house,” she responded when another Palestinian offered his services instead. Walid is from Bethlehem and has not been allowed to enter the settlements since the closure.

A shopper at the Rami Levy supermarket in the Gush Etzion bloc, West Bank, March 15, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Salim, who also cleans houses in Ma’aleh Adumim, entered the settlement wearing gloves. “It’s for health reasons,” he explained, saying there was concern that Palestinians would be infected by Israeli employers.

By contrast, the Samaria regional council of settlements said on Monday that residents are concerned about letting Palestinian workers in. Not far away, at a mall in Ma’aleh Adumim, there was tape and signs blocking access to the escalators, which meant that customers wanting to get to the pharmacy, post office or bank had to crowd together in an elevator.

At the synagogue at the entrance to the city, there was a circumcision ceremony where guests took turns so that no more than ten people at a time were inside. Naomi, the baby’s grandmother, remained outside for a few minutes before being called in.

Among the regional councils in the area, the Samaria council has the highest number of people infected with the virus – five in Leshem and four in Einav. The council’s spokesman said that 200 other people were in home quarantine.

On Sunday, it was reported that a resident of Kiryat Arba had been infected. When medical personnel investigated how she contracted the disease, they found a surprising fact. Earlier this month, she had taken part in an international conference in the Palestinian West Bank town of Beit Jala, where others have also now been found to have been infected.

People queuing to enter the Rami Levy supermarket in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, West Bank, March 15, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

According to the Hebron Hills regional council, 500 students and staff at the Dvir school, where the woman works, have been placed in quarantine. In the Etzion Bloc, Rabbi David Singer, the head of the Makor Haim yeshiva, was also found to be infected.

The streets of the Leshem settlement were filled with children on Sunday. Just as in Israel proper, schools and kindergartens were closed on orders of the Health Ministry. But 30 other residents were placed in quarantine after going skiing in Austria, where a major corona outbreak has occurred.

Leshem resident Avital is a mother of five. In addition to schools being closed, she has to deal with another challenge. Her husband is in hospital with the coronavirus.

“I did something nice for him with that ski trip and this is what happened,” she quipped in irony.

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