The Israeli government is considering closing the Shoafat border checkpoint in East Jerusalem as part of its effort to stem the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
Such a move would cut off tens of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians who are permanent residents of Israel but live on the other side of the security barrier and would be severed from the rest of city.
In response, the residents of the Shoafat refugee camp, which is one of the relatively small number of Palestinian neighborhoods on the other side of the barrier and near the checkpoint, have begun taking steps on their own to deal with the virus without Israeli government assistance.
The Prime Minister’s Office said that no decision had been made on the matter, and according to the police, the crossing will not be closed.
The checkpoint was closed for an hour on Friday, after which those passing through it were informed that as of the beginning of this week, only those with permits showing that they work in an essential service would be allowed in.
Police told some people at the checkpoint that they were awaiting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision on the matter. A senior political official said Saturday that no decision had been made regarding the closure of the crossing and that the matter would be considered in the coming week.
Meanwhile, the police said they had no intention of closing the checkpoint and that police personnel had not been instructed to provide information on the matter to members of the public.
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About 100,000 Palestinians live in the Shoafat refugee camp and the surrounding neighborhoods and an estimated 70,000 of them are permanent Israeli residents. Hospitals and other essential workplaces have been asked to give employees who live in the refugee camp employee IDs stating they are essential staff, permitting them to continue to use the crossing.
Residents of the Shoafat refugee camp have expressed concern for several days that Israel would close the checkpoint. Channel 11 public television reported that a plan to do so was drafted by the National Security Council, but it is being vehemently opposed by Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon.
In an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the densely-populated Shoafat camp, a group of volunteers there is working to convert a sports center into a place where residents who are required to go into quarantine, including those who have been exposed to the coronavirus, can spend the night.
They have also prepared a commercial van to transport patients or others who are in isolation, and camp residents have donated money for medical equipment, including protective gear and oxygen tanks.
“The problem is that beds cost much more and we don’t have the money. We might get iron and make them ourselves,” said one volunteer, Malak Hashan.
“We’ve consulted with six doctors who live in the camp or whose parents live here,” he added. “They explained exactly what to do, and ... they are giving us a course on how to wear the protective suit. They told us that if someone needed to be evacuated, there was no chance that anyone would agree to take them in their own car, so we’ve organized a vehicle to take them to the crossing and to Magen David Adom,” Hashan said, referring to the Israeli emergency medical organization.
The group set up a hotline that residents of the camp can call for assistance, purchased communications equipment and assigned volunteers to patrol the streets if a closure is imposed. The volunteers said they thought closing the checkpoint would spur increased crime and violence in the camp, because, they claimed, the police would not enter the area.
“In the camp, if you sneeze in your house, your neighbor says gesundheit,” Hashan quipped, hinting at the crowded living conditions. “There are 100,000 people living in two square kilometers. There are no places for isolation at all. The homes are small and the Magen David Adom ambulance doesn’t come in. The disease is scaring people. Death is scaring people.”
“Fear is like air here. Everybody is breathing fear,” said A., a teacher who is a camp resident and asked not to be identified by name. “There are 100,000 people here, no official clinic, no hospital. Just small clinics. There’s no equipment, no ambulances and no first aid stations. We’re thrown behind the fence here, like people are thrown into the desert without food or water.”
Residents said that the police are not enforcing Israeli Health Ministry regulations mandating business closures to curb the spread of the virus, and that Israeli police at the checkpoint are handing out explanatory materials, but aren’t enforcing quarantine requirements the way they do elsewhere.
According to A. and others, on Saturday the police had already begun making it more difficult for residents to cross into the rest of Jerusalem. “Eventually things will explode,” A. warned. “There will be hundreds, maybe thousands of people who get sick here. So you can’t stop them. People will jump over the crossing and get in,” he claimed.
On Saturday, the Hamoked Center for the Defense of the Individual sent a letter prior to the filing of a High Court petition over the Israeli government’s purported plan to limit access through the checkpoint.
“The plan to prevent the movement of residents of the country on the eastern side of the security barrier to the western side deeply and unreasonably and disproportionately infringes on several basic rights of the country’s residents in those neighborhoods. The right to freedom of movement, to life with dignity, the right to health and the right to equality are only some of the rights that are compromised. In addition, it is our position that this plan is so wrong and dangerous that it endangers the most important basic right of all, the right to life,” lawyers Benjamin Agsteribbe and Adi Lustigman wrote.