After Weeks of Warning, Coronavirus Spreading Among Palestinians in East Jerusalem

Outbreak could be severe due to overcrowding and a high incidence of underlying illnesses, health professionals warn

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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מזרח ירושלים, בחודש שעבר
A woman wearing a mask in East Jerusalem, March 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Medical professionals report an increase in COVID-19 infection among Palestinians in East Jerusalem, estimating that at least 80 patients have been diagnosed.

Haredi leaders learn harsh corona lesson as Israel sends in the troopsCredit: Haaretz

Half the patients are said to be in Silwan, where Dr. Samar Awar, who volunteers in the neighborhood, says 14 patients are members of the same family. On Sunday, the first three patients were identified in the neighborhood of Isawiyah, two of whom work in the health system and in nursing homes, and the first patient was identified in Shoafat refugee camp.

On Monday morning, in response to a petition form Adalah legal center for minority rights, the government announced that three testing clinics would open in East Jerusalem: One in Silwan and two in neighborhoods beyond the separation barrier, in Kafr Aqab and Shoafat refugee camp. The three new clinics join three others operating in the area and a drive-through testing facility in Jabal Mukaber.

The drive-through coronavirus testing facility in East Jerusalem, April 2020.Credit: ohad Zwigenberg

Medical professionals in East Jerusalem have been warning for weeks of a coronavirus outbreak in Palestinian neighborhoods. Such an outbreak could be especially severe because of overcrowding, large families living together, a high incidence of diabetes and a large number of smokers.

So far, widespread infection has not been found in East Jerusalem, certainly not in comparison to levels reported in Haredi neighborhoods in the western part of the city. Experts said the reason behind this is that Palestinians did not come into contact with the first circle of infection in Israel, which mostly included people returning from abroad and people who participated in Purim celebrations. They also noted a high level of discipline in the Palestinian public and a successful avoidance of large gatherings.

Mayor Moshe Leon is also pressuring authorities to increase testing in Palestinian neighborhoods and warning of a possible outbreak. “I want to thank the Clalit health services for enlisting in the Jerusalem effort, and call on the residents of the eastern part of the city to go and get tested,” he said on Monday.

Awar explained that an outbreak in the eastern part of the city would certainly spread to the western part as well. The hospitals in East Jerusalem are not prepared for a widespread outbreak, so the burden will fall on hospitals in the western part, he said. So far, Palestinain residents have obeyed orders to stay at home, but eventually “people will go to bring food to their children, even if it means they will be infected. We need the government to bring food to the neighborhoods,” said Awar.

People in East Jerusalem, April 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

In addition, patients in East Jerusalem have reported in recent days that the Israeli Health Ministry is not conducting epidemiological investigations and failing to warn people who came into contact with them to self-quarantine. A few patients turned to social media to announce where they had been and inform those who were around them to go into isolation.

Two weeks ago, the Israeli police confiscated a food truck sent to the Sur Baher neighborhood, saying it caused people to congregate. The police asked community organizers to distribute the food, but the Islamic nonprofit from Kafr Qasem that donated the food refused. A few days later, another truck was brought in by community organizers but efforts were overshadowed by the fact that one of the workers involved in the distribution was found out to be sick with COVID-19.

In light of the crisis, independent initiatives have been multiplying in East Jerusalem. In almost every neighborhood there is an independent committee passing on information, distributing protective equipment and food, and preparing isolation facilities. One of these organizations is a group of Jewish and Arab activists named “Kulna Yerushalayim” (We are all Jerusalem), which has been working in recent days in the Shoafat refugee camp. The volunteers are going from house to house dressed in protective gear and are updating the residents on the Health Ministry instructions, and giving out protective equipment.

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