Opinion

Coronavirus in the West Bank: We Palestinians Have Plenty of Experience Surviving Curfews and Lockdowns

It turns out there are ironic 'benefits' in being so easily blockaded by our neighbors. And another surprise: an unlikely outbreak of pride in the Palestinian Authority's commitment and competence

A Palestinian sanitation worker sprays disinfectant against coronavirus infection around the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem, with Israel's separation barrier in the background. March 16, 2020
AFP

Like most Palestinians, I am generally skeptical, if not doubtful, about how the Palestinian Authority, which manages our everyday life in the West Bank, handles civic responsibility and our routine needs. My expectations were no different when it came to the coronavirus. But - so far - the PA and its officials are offering us a different, far more capable, example - whi may even help restore Palestinians’ faith in them.

As the outbreak began in the West Bank, and specifically in the Bethlehem area, we saw a predictable reaction from the Palestinian people: fear and doubt about the response of the Palestinian Authority. The skepticism is well-founded and legitimate. Our experiences with those who govern the public sector - as individuals, families and communities - leads us to believe that we are not in safe hands.

The first couple of days of the coronavirus crisis failed to offer any different indication. The Palestinian Authority, not least  the health ministry, were completely overwhelmed, despite official statements prior to the outbreak informing the public of their ability to handle the outbreak.

We had no idea whether they were engaged in doing the right thing or not, but the mistrust between the people and the authority was very obvious. People demanded transparency from the Authority about how they were handling the virus. Clear official communications were missing; positive tests results were leaked through social media before patients knew they carried the virus, there were no clear zones assigned for quarantine and rumors ran amok. It was a mess.

Then something changed. Towards the end of that first week, we started seeing the PA take adequate measures to control the situation. They declared a state of emergency, closing schools, universities, religious sites and tourist areas in the West Bank. They locked down Bethlehem, preventing anyone entering or exiting the city since it has become clear that most of the cases were clustered there. They developed clear communication channels with the public, and levied punitive measures on anyone spreading unfounded rumors.

It continued: the PA introduced sophisticated financial propositions to support mortgage payers and to protect the private sector labor force. The level of infections now stands at 48 diagnosed cases  in the West Bank, the majority of them in Bethlehem, with another 3,900 Palestinians in home quarantine. The slow rise in cases over the last three days is a credit to these efforts, winning them positive popular recognition.

For most of the people of Bethlehem, this lockdown is hardly their first. Lockdowns and curfews were the status quo in the city during the long years of the second intifada. Whether our Israeli “neighbors” know or care, we have been through some of this before. We have worked from home, we did homeschooling, our sports leagues were frozen, we could not travel, and we were afraid of leaving our houses. 

All of this may explain the unprecedent cooperation of the Palestinian people with PA calls to stay home, and the success - so far - in controlling the spread. We have been through this before - in different circumstances - but with the same goal: to stay safe, to stay alive.

There is even black humor in the fact that we can be so quickly, and radically, blockaded from the world: We don’t control our borders, which have been shut by our occupiers; we are surrounded by Israel’s “security wall,” so there are fewer vectors to spread the virus; we have no airport, so we are more easily isolated from the world.

A Red Crescent Society worker outside a newly-repurposed building equipped to receive coronavirus patients in Hebron in the occupied West Bank. March 15, 202
AFP

Clearly, the strict discipline enforced by the Palestinian Authority and the cooperation of the people is also the result of a clear shared understanding - we don’t have a reliable health care system. We must collectively act to do everything we can to avoid a wider outbreak. On a global perspective, we see that authoritarian regimes in general have a more effective response to the coronavirus crisis: they operate within a different political ecosystem, where harsh measures are not penalized by an electorate.

Public opinion is now unusually warm towards what it considers a Palestinian Authority that have performed far beyond its low expectations and terminal disappointment with the PA. I hope that the Palestinian Authority will take this provisional vote of confidence further: to understand that when they are transparent with the public and acting for the common good, we will rally around them.

It may not be a fever dream to imagine the coronavirus fueling a new phase of national solidarity, identity and common purpose, affirming the need for elections in Palestine, our united opposition to Trump’s “deal of the century,” and to achieve our freedom. 

George Zeidan is co-founder of Right to Movement Palestine, an initiative to illustrate the reality of Palestinian life through sports.  A Fulbright awardee with a masters degree from the Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California, he is program manager for DanChurchAid humanitarian organization.  He grew up in Jerusalem’s Old City