Palestinians in Israeli-controlled West Bank Fall Through Cracks of Coronavirus Response

Palestinians in small villages of Area C don’t receive the services they need to combat the coronavirus from either Israel or the Palestinian Authority

Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf
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An imam in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar prepares for prayers, May 3, 2020.
An imam in the Bedouin village of Khan al-Ahmar prepares for prayers, May 3, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Hagar Shezaf
Hagar Shezaf

There are places in the West Bank where even washing your hands with clean water, the most basic rule to try stop the spread of the coronavirus, is virtually impossible.

The village of Zanuta, which is located south of Hebron and like all villages in Area C of the West Bank is under Israeli control, is not connected to a clean water source. Its residents use rainwater collected with cisterns. “Should I rinse my hands with this water?” asks Adel Atil, a village resident. “There are more germs here than in any epidemic,” he notes.

The Civil Administration, the body of the Israeli army responsible for civilian management of areas of the West Bank under Israeli control, says the village is not connected to the water system since its houses were built illegally. The High Court of Justice forbade the state from demolishing Zanuta, asking it to consider legalizing the buildings retroactively. Palestinian residents of these areas often complain it is virtually impossible to get building permits, making it inevitable to build illegally.

The village of Khan al-Ahmar, May 3, 2020.
The village of Khan al-Ahmar, May 3, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The village is but one instance of the difficulties facing small villages in Area C during the coronavirus crisis. The area is under Israeli control, according to the Oslo Accords, but health services are supposed to be the Palestinian Authority’s responsibility.

According to the human rights organization Bimkom, there are 180 shepherd communities in the area, numbering 35,000 people. The villages have under-developed infrastructure due to repeated demolitions by Israel and the absence of construction plans. They encountered the coronavirus crisis already under conditions of poverty and high unemployment.

The vacuum left by Israel and the Palestinian Authority is now felt more than ever. “The situation is awful, no one in the village is working,” Daud Jahalin from Khan al-Ahmar, one of the villages, told Haaretz. The village came under the spotlight when Israel declared its intention to evacuate it in 2018.

Distribution of food in isolated villages near Hebron, April 2020.
Distribution of food in isolated villages near Hebron, April 2020.Credit: Majdi Mohammed/AP

"It’s worse now during Ramadan since we need more food, more clothes. We don’t have the money to go shopping in Jericho,” say residents.

When the Palestinian Authority imposed travel restrictions, small villages were cut off from urban centres in which they used to shop. The Authority now allows a limited amount of people to cross roadblocks in order to purchase essentials.

But food shortages aren’t the only problem. It’s the lack of money as well. Usually, residents of Khan al-Ahmar and other villages in Area C work in Israel or in settlements. Due to the closure imposed by Israel and the Palestinian Authority, most people don’t go to work or receive unemployment benefits. “No one is looking after us during this period” says Eid Abu Khamis, the head of the Khan al-Ahmar community. “Both Israel and the Authority look after their own people. They disinfect, provide alco-gel and food, but no one helps us,” he laments. Abu Khamis says no one explained to them how to contend with the virus.

A Bedouin man rides a donkey in Khan al-Ahmar, May 3, 2020.
A Bedouin man rides a donkey in Khan al-Ahmar, May 3, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

In Abu Nuwar, a village east of Jerusalem, unemployment has skyrocketed and shortages are acute. Yunes Hamadin, a village resident, says that since the crisis started, they received goods only once from the social services department of the Palestinian Authority. They haven’t heard a thing from Israel. “No one asked us about the elderly or the sick people in the village, we’ve been left completely on our own,” he says.

In addition, Israel continues to demolish structures in Area C. According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in the Palestinian Territories, there have been 23 demolitions of structures and infrastructure since early March. Last week, the Israeli army evicted a family of seven from a building near Jericho. The operation took place despite Israel’s pledges to the UN not to carry out demolitions or confiscations of illegally built inhabited structures in the West Bank until the crisis is over.

Recently, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, as well as NGOs Bimkom and Physicians for Human Rights, sent a letter in which they demanded that the commander of the IDF Central Command and the Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories, the Defence Ministry unit overseeing the Civil Administration, allow a hook-up of communities in Area C to the water system during this period, as well as permit the construction of temporary structures which could be used for quarantine purposes. Neither however happened.  

Food distribution in the isolated villages, on Thursday, April 30, 2020.
Food distribution in the isolated villages, on Thursday, April 30, 2020.Credit: Yael Moav

According to Alon Cohen-Lifschitz from Bimkom, “Israeli authorities must change their policy of demolition and expulsion and allow these communities to survive and develop, while recognizing their existence and way of life.”

Ahead of Ramadan, Abu Khamis linked up with “Friends of the Jahalin,” a group of Israeli activists (some of them from the adjacent settlement of Kfar Adumim) in order to distribute food in communities in the area.

A day before the start of Ramadan, he went to the Jordan Valley in order to collect food from farmers there, later distributing it to local residents. Since then, he and some volunteers have been distributing basic food almost daily. “It’s very difficult,” says Daud. “But at least for now we’re getting some rice and vegetables, which helps get through Ramadan.”

COGAT provided a statement in response to this report. “We have been cooperating with the Palestinian Authority and the international community in recent months in order to help counter an outbreak of the virus in Judea and Samaria,” the statement read. “Palestinian health authorities were provided with thousands of test kits for the virus, as well as protective gear for medical teams and various disinfectants. Medical teams have received training, including doctors, nurses, lab technicians. This was provided by Israeli doctors to their Palestinian counterparts,” it concluded.

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