COVID-19 Brings East Jerusalem Palestinians and Israeli Authorities Closer. Will It Last?

The army’s Home Front Command has worked with the community to curb the spread of the virus in most Palestinian neighborhoods, but not on the other side of the separation barrier

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Brig. Gen. (res.) Ben-Zvi Eliassi, who heads the Home Front Command's Jerusalem coronavirus command center, and Jabal Mukkaber muktar Rami Rabia.
Brig. Gen. (res.). Ben-Zvi Eliassi, the head of the Home Front Command's coronavirus control center in Jerusalem, right, with Rami Rabia, the mukhtar of the Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The map showing the presence of the coronavirus in Israel is in large measure a reflection of the level of trust between residents in various parts of the country and the authorities.

The greater the incidence of infection, the less likely it is that the population counts on the authorities or that it trusts them. The sharp decline in the number of cases in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, which in the current second wave of the pandemic went from being coded “red” by the Health Ministry – the most serious situation – to orange and then to best-rated green – was therefore a welcome surprise. And it happened before many other communities.

Many people in Jerusalem believe that the primary reason for this is what’s been happening in the basement of the Jerusalem city hall, underneath the parking department, where the East Jerusalem coronavirus response team from the Israeli Army’s Home Front Command is located. The staff there coordinates the evacuation and isolation of patients.

Haaretz Podcast: Why is Israel arming Azerbaijan against Armenia? Listen to Yossi MelmanCredit: Haaretz

They keep tabs on activity that could spread the virus, such as weddings, funerals and lines at the post office, and also provide assistance to hospitals. Most importantly, they field a large contingent of staff and volunteers in the neighborhoods who are responsible not only for to assisting patients and their families, but also to help communicate Israeli Health Ministry directives to the Palestinian public in East Jerusalem – neighborhoods that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War and then annexed.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon believes that the cooperation signals a turning point in ties between the authorities and East Jerusalem. But even the best efforts of the Home Front Command haven’t managed to overcome one obstacle – the separation barrier. The barrier runs roughly along the border between Israel and the West Bank but its route has placed several Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem on the other side.

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon, center, at a coronavirus testing center in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabal Mukkaber, August 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The beginning of the first wave of the coronavirus in the spring sparked major concern within the public health care system and at Jerusalem city hall. The population of East Jerusalem is as large as Tel Aviv’s but with conditions that are much more congested. During the first wave, people in East Jerusalem very strictly followed the rules and infection rates were low. But in August, the infection rate spiked.

City officials linked the upsurge to parties celebrating the end of Palestinian matriculation exams, to wedding season and to mass prayer on the Temple Mount. By mid-August, the data was terrifying. The infection rate outstripped that in the city’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and more than 30 percent of coronavirus tests there were coming back positive. On one particular day, the positivity rate was 43 percent, and the authorities became concerned that things would spiral totally out of control.

Two weeks later, the case numbers began to drop – before they did elsewhere in Israel. The weekly case figures in East Jerusalem dropped from 1,093 in early September to 111 last week. The percentage of tests that came back positive has also declined, despite a lower number of tests, to less than 7 percent last week.

According to Brig. Gen. (res.). Ben-Zvi Eliassi, who heads the Home Front Command control center in Jerusalem, the most important part of the process was curbing the number of weddings. (Indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 20). The army gathered information to monitor the situation, relying particularly on social media. The families of celebrants and the owners of wedding halls were then approached in an effort to persuade them to postpone or significantly reduce the number of participants.

In many instances, East Jerusalem residents responded by moving their events to areas of the West Bank under the control of the Palestinian Authority. The Home Front Command was aware of this, a source said, but preferred not to involve the army’s Central Command to put a halt to the weddings in the West Bank.

Brig. Gen. (res.) Ben-Zvi Eliassi at the Home Front Command's Jerusalem coronavirus command center, Oct. 2020.Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

According to Eliassi, the public relations efforts worked and weddings were drastically reduced in size or postponed. “Grooms realized that they could get married without paying 200,000 shekels ($59,200) for a wedding hall,” quipped Rami Rabia, the mukhtar – a title given to local leaders or clan heads – in the East Jerusalem Jabal Mukkaber neighborhood, who works closely with the Home Front Command.

Gatherings at funerals and the post office

Funerals were another problem. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 79 people have died of the coronavirus in East Jerusalem. Many families conducted purification rites without proper protection and held mass funerals without insisting on social distancing and masks. After the Home Front Command control center and the Health Ministry intervened, a local emergency medical association called Nuran took responsibility for ensuring that the rules were observed at purification ceremonies and funerals.

Yet another challenge was long lines at the post office on days when National Insurance Institute benefits are paid. As a result, the presence of attendants and the police was stepped up and people were informed that they could receive payments at other post office branches, to ease the crowding.

Unlike some ultra-Orthodox leaders, most Arab religious leaders in East Jerusalem have been a positive influence in dealing with the pandemic. The Waqf, the Muslim religious trust, did not close the gates to the Temple Mount during the second wave, because it was unable to receive assurances from Israeli authorities that Jews would not be allowed into the compound during the lockdown. But when the rate of infection rose, Waqf monitors began seeing to it that social distancing was observed during prayers. Neighborhood mosques began holding prayers outdoors and a few shut down altogether.

“One imam whom we talked to announced prayers [on a mosque loudspeaker] and then ran two minutes away to an adjacent schoolyard to hold the prayers there,” said Jonathan Ventura, who in civilian life has a Ph.D. in design and does his reserve duty as an officer at the Home Front Command control center.

Tense meeting

East Jerusalem holds an important place in Eliassi’s military career. In 1992, the ground collapsed near a cafe in the vicinity of the Damascus Gate, burying 23 people. Extracting the dead and injured took several days. This was the Home Front Command’s first major rescue mission.

Jerusalem amid the coronavirus pandemic, Oct. 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

It had been established a short time previously, following the first Gulf War. For Eliassi, who took part in the rescue effort as a young officer, the experience made a major impression on him.

Today, in his role as head of the coronavirus control center for Jerusalem, he has had to build a completely new kind of relationship with the city’s residents.

Evacuating and isolating confirmed COVID-19 patients is an important part of the center’s activities. As a result, the Home Front Command runs hotels in East Jerusalem that are designated for that purpose. An assistance network has also been set up for the families of patients and for those required to go into quarantine to encourage them to follow the guidelines and to provide them with food and medicine.

“Patients feel that there is someone looking after them, so they don’t leave home,” Eliassi said. “In addition, there is enforcement at the individual level to make sure people follow the rules. Patients know they’re being monitored, and they don’t break the isolation rules.”

Some of the personnel at the coronavirus control network are paid by the Defense Ministry and the municipality, while others are volunteers who look after the needs of patients and those in quarantine. The control center works through Jerusalem’s community administrations (local neighborhood councils with fairly broad powers, which operate in both the eastern and the western parts of the city). It pays the salaries of the person in the neighborhood who is responsible for coronavirus operations, along with the coordinator of volunteers and the coronavirus “trustee,” who monitors compliance with rules and is involved in contact tracing.

In some instances, the control center has received assistance from the Zaka emergency medical service organization, which has dispatched its people to ride through East Jerusalem neighborhoods to made public announcements in Arabic. The control center also maintains contact with the hospitals in East Jerusalem.

For many years, the three East Jerusalem hospitals have been stepchildren of the Israeli health care system. They have been short of funds and have received only lax oversight from the Israeli Health Ministry. At the beginning of the first wave of the pandemic, Eliassi and Jerusalem Mayor Leon began holding regular meetings with the directors of the hospitals, which have acceded to a Health Ministry request to open additional COVID-19 wards and have received advanced testing equipment.

An Israeli Health Ministry advertisement in Arabic in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah on the importance of wearing a mask , Oct. 8, 2020.Credit: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP

The Home Front Command center has relied on a network of paid personnel and volunteers, as well as young women from East Jerusalem doing alternative national service. The cooperative effort required the center to surmount political and social obstacles. While army uniforms are considered less problematic in East Jerusalem neighborhoods than those of the Border Police, Palestinian encounters with uniformed Israeli personnel can still be tense.

East Jerusalem activists have agreed with the Home Front Command that the coronavirus is a common enemy, which has helped reduce tensions. But other residents of East Jerusalem have said that the activists who have been working with the soldiers are not from the mainstream of Jerusalem Palestinian society.

Instead, they say, they are Palestinians who have tended in any event to be more cooperative with Israel. Contrary to expectations, however, since the beginning of the second wave, there has been almost no opposition to such cooperation in the field or on social media.

An expert on East Jerusalem who has been following the control center’s activities said there are three types of Palestinian activists and organizations in Jerusalem. “There are activists who always cooperate with the municipality, and they were the first to jump on the bandwagon,” he said.

A woman is tested by a healthcare worker for the coronavirus at a mobile testing station, in East Jerusalem, July 21, 2020.Credit: Oded Balilty/AP

“The question is how accepted they are and how representative of the population. Alongside them are the community administrations that have received generous funding and have proven that they have a high capacity to carry things out. And then there are the folks who can’t even utter the word “city hall” – but even there, the beginnings of cooperation can be seen. It’s done through quiet dialogue – things that we haven’t seen in the past. The subsiding of the Palestinian issue is also manifesting itself in Jerusalem.”

The extent of the success of the system varies from one neighborhood to the next. There is much greater success in southern Palestinian neighborhoods – in Sur Baher and Jabal Mukkaber, where efficient assistance networks have been set up and infection rates have been relatively low. In some Palestinian neighborhoods in the north of the city, the attitude has been more resistent, particularly in Isawiyah.

The problem is that a good many of the control center’s activities have not reached the neighborhoods on the other side of the separation barrier – the Shoafat refugee camp and Kafr Akeb – where about a third of East Jerusalem’s residents live. The police barely enforce the guidelines there and the authorities’ capacity to understand and control what is happening there is very limited. The neighborhoods on the other side of the barrier still have a moderate incidence of the coronavirus, and are considered “orange” according to the Health Ministry’s model.

“We’ve brought East Jerusalem under control. We are in a situation in which there are barely any new infections,” Mayor Leon said commenting on the overall situation. “Over the past year, East Jerusalem has become more truly united with West Jerusalem,” he added.

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