Dawn of a New Era? Jerusalem and Its Palestinian Residents Joining Forces to Battle Coronavirus

East Jerusalem activists and Mayor Moshe Leon report close and efficient cooperation in the fight against the coronavirus, with representatives of both sides meeting several times a week on a regular basis

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon distributing food in East Jerusalem, April 30, 2020
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon distributing food in East Jerusalem, April 30, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

On the eve of Independence Day Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon asked the Israel Air Force to change the course of its flyover over hospitals in salute to medical teams to also include St. Joseph's Hospital in Sheikh Jarrah, the only hospital in East Jerusalem to open a designated coronavirus ward. The Air Force complied with Leon's request, and after flying over Jerusalem's Hadassah and Sha'are Tzedek medical centers, the aircraft continued eastward. “This was a historic, moving event, symbolizing unity in the battle against the coronavirus,” Leon said.

Even in days when the unusual becomes the norm, a military flyover in salute to medical staffers of a Palestinian hospital is an event to remember. East Jerusalem residents and the hospital staff viewed the move as a positive gesture. “For the first time, we are being recognized, which allows us to take pride in what we do,” St. Joseph’s Director General Jamil Kousa said, adding with a wry smile that he wished "the coronavirus would come every year.”

Two days later, another extraordinary incident took place in East Jerusalem. Home Front Command soldiers, in uniform but unarmed, unpacked food boxes in the neighborhood of Abu Tor. The two police officers who accompanied the soldiers for their own protection were left unemployed. Leon, accompanied by only one security guard, was also in attendance. “Not even one person in East Jerusalem will go hungry,” the mayor said.

Home Front soldiers and residents of the A-Tur neighborhood in East Jerusalem, April 30, 2020
Home Front soldiers and residents of the A-Tur neighborhood in East Jerusalem, April 30, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

And so, it appears that the coronavirus crisis has led Israeli authorities – particularly the Jerusalem Municipality – and East Jerusalem residents to experience a honeymoon period. Palestinian activists and the mayor have been reporting close and efficient cooperation, with representatives of both sides meeting several times a week on a regular basis.

The municipality has distributed thousands of food baskets to impoverished East Jerusalem residents with the assistance of local volunteers and is cooperating with the Home Front Command to resolve issues involving coronavirus testing, quarantine and treatment of patients in the area.

Palestinian civil society is one of the elements that enabled this honeymoon to exist. All those involved in the unusual cooperation between Israeli authorities and Palestinians in East Jerusalem agree that it wouldn't have happened if East Jerusalem activists had not organized in a remarkable manner.

Committees were established in most neighborhoods to enforce the coronavirus lockdown, while assisting those in need and ensuring coronavirus patients enter quarantine.

In addition, dozens of small Palestinian organizations established the Jerusalem Assembly to Battle the Coronavirus, which provides information about the virus and coordinates assistance in East Jerusalem neighborhoods. The Assembly's work culminated in the opening of a hotel designated for quarantined coronavirus patients, funded by Palestinian businessmen. The Home Front Command soon became involved by transferring people who had to enter isolation after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport directly to the hotel. This required close and complex cooperation with the Health Ministry that wasn't familiar with the initiative.

Residents of A-Tor, East Jerusalem, April 30, 2020
Residents of A-Tor, East Jerusalem, April 30, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Leon also played a key role in these recent developments. This is not the first time that Leon – a proud right-winger who heads an ultra-Orthodox coalition in Jerusalem City Council – pleasantly surprised East Jerusalem residents. The last time was when he came to visit Malek Issa, a 9-year-old from the embattled East Jerusalem neighborhood of Isawiyah who was shot in the eye with a sponge-tipped bullet by a Border Police officer and consequently lost his eye. His decision to freeze house demolitions in Isawiyah in order to advance an urban master plan there was also welcomed.

Palestinian activists attribute Leon’s conduct precisely to his unquestionable right-wing affiliation. As opposed to his predecessor, Nir Barkat, he isn't required to present every action in East Jerusalem as a political move to strengthen Israeli sovereignty there.

According to Aviv Tatarsky, a researcher for the left-wing Ir Amim organization, “Leon is a doer, he’s not a man of big words or vision." Tatarsky has been following for years the relationship between Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the municipality. “When it comes to the coronavirus, Leon is doing what needs to be done and that’s why he's succeeding,” he added.

In recent weeks, Leon has received the greatest compliment that veteran Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem could have given him: comparing him to the city’s legendary Mayor Teddy Kollek, whom many remember as the last Jerusalem mayor who cared about them.

Food distribution in East Jerusalem, April 30, 2020
Food distribution in East Jerusalem, April 30, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“We’re at the dawn of a new era,” says Daoud Siyam, a social activist from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. “If we succeed in making the best out of it, our situation would be better than with Teddy Kollek. Leon treats people as equals and he doesn’t care about politics. I hope this continues after the coronavirus crisis ends,” Siyam added.

Hani Reit, the director of the Silwan, Abu Tor and Ras al-Amud community center, said that “Some people are angry over our cooperation with the municipality but they know that my goal is to help the people, which I couldn’t do in the past. This doesn’t mean we’re not Palestinians, that’s who we are and that won’t change. But for the time being we have to rely on the Israeli establishment."  

Reit is a former member of the Tanzim, the militant faction of the Palestinian Fatah movement, and the cousin of Adnan Reit, the Palestinian Authority’s governor for Jerusalem who was arrested nine times in 2019 for suspected illegal activities in the city.

Palestinian activists wonder if the positive change will extend to the treatment of the East Jerusalem's major problem, like the lack of urban master plans and building permits, as well as rampant poverty expected amid the coronavirus crisis.

However, those who are less optimistic worry about Leon’s commitment to the right wing and the ultra-Orthodox. Moreover, Jerusalem city Councilman Arieh King – best known for settling Jews in East Jerusalem who ran for Knesset with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party – is expected to be appointed deputy mayor in the coming days.

Last week, the Jerusalem Planning and Building Committee recommended that a new Jewish neighborhood be built in the heart of the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem.

Another point of contention is the almost complete disregard by the municipality and other authorities of the neighborhoods on the other side of the separation barrier, particularly Kafr Aqab, north of the Qalandiyah checkpoint. Although Kafr Aqab is part of Jerusalem, Samih Abu Ramila, who chairs the Kafr Aqab coronavirus committee says that “The municipality has shirked all responsibility."

He added that "There are no sanitation services or coronavirus testing stations in the village. No one oversees studies in unofficial schools or enforces the closure of shops.”

Nevertheless, the current low infection rate in East Jerusalem is encouraging, certainly compared to the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, or the frightening scenarios presented at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. According to Health Ministry assessments, there are only some 150 coronavirus cases in the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, most of whom are in light condition, and two fatalities.

Many of those infected caught the virus at hospitals or nursing homes where they work. The main explanation for the differences in infection rates in Jerusalem's different neighborhoods is the self-discipline shown by East Jerusalem residents.

Dr. Samer al-Awar, a member of the Silwan Doctors' Committee, said that the fact that several generations of one family still reside in the same building also helped to curb the infection rate in East Jerusalem. “People are afraid for their elderly relatives, and this fear has helped us convey the message to stay home,” he explained in a meeting via Zoom initiated by the organization 0202 – Points of View from Jerusalem.

“If dealing with the coronavirus leads to the municipality being more committed to the welfare of the residents of East Jerusalem, it would require a genuine policy change, like in the matter of planning and building in the neighborhoods on the other side of the separation barrier,” Tatarsky said.

“Some in the Israeli establishment will object to such policy change, and even among the Palestinians there will be people thinking this comes at the expense of their national identity. This tension will influence the future of the relations between East Jerusalem organizations and the municipality,” he added. 

Dr. Hagai Agmon-Snir, the director general of the Jerusalem Inter-Cultural Center, which assists in the building of relationships between the authorities and Palestinian civil society, said that “The advantage of the coronavirus crisis is that it’s not linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and can be dealt while disregarding political considerations.

“We see a trend in which the old orientalist concept, by which East Jerusalem is made up of villages, clans, and hostile Palestinian organizations, is being replaced by a new perspective – Jerusalem's eastern part enables a civil society to flourish, and is home to activists and professionals, just like in the western part of the city," Agmon-Snir said. He added that the "old reality hasn't completely vanished," but a civil society has been gradually forming in East Jerusalem.

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