By Qassam Muaddi
It was around 11 am when people at the Beit Sira checkpoint, near Nablus, began to gather around the 29-year-old Malik Ghanem. Coughing, with fever and unable to stand, the young Palestinian was left there by the occupation police, who had brought him all the way from his workplace in Tel Aviv. “I got very tired, earlier at work” recalls Ghanem, “my Israelí employer refused to take me to the hospital, so I had to pay 400 shekels for an ambulance. After a quick check at the entrance, I was taken by the police to the checkpoint”.
Ghanem was suspected to be infected with COVID-19, so the occupation authorities suspended his work permit. “The occupation police officers told me, as they pushed me away from their vehicle at the checkpoint, that there was no place for me in any quarantine center in Israel”, tells Ghanem, who was later found not to be infected by a coronavirus, but rather having regular flu that augmented his chronic suffering of a liver problem.
The face of a crippled statehood
In the last weeks, Palestine has unusually made it to the media reports as an independent country, but not for the right reasons. In the midst of the world’s attention turned to the spread of coronavirus, Palestine has been identified for the number of infection cases in the Palestinian Authority territories (84 at the moment of writing this article). Palestine has also been reported in various media outlets as having taken strict measures against the pandemic. The director of the local WHO office, Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, even congratulated the Palestinian government, in a public video, for its performance in facing the spread of the new disease. However, this coverage of Palestine through the coronavirus crisis hides a reality that looks very different.
The Palestinian government has ordered to close shops, suspend all classes and limited movement out of the country through the bridge crossing point to Jordan, the only exit for Palestinians in the West Bank. Eventually, it even decreed a general curfew last Sunday, in all Palestinian cities. The first curfew in all of Palestine’s history not to be imposed by an occupation authority.
However, despite all these measures and all this display of the characteristics of a state in action, the Palestinian government doesn’t have the means to face the crisis independently from the occupation state. Palestine has no control over its own borders, neither it does over movement between its cities and towns, or even over the capacities of its own health system. The Israelí occupation does.
The case of Malk Ghanem sheds light on one of the most obvious aspects of this dependency. Like Ghanbem, over 200.000 Palestinian workers, cross daily to the other of the green line and back. Like him they are all vulnerable to infection and like him, they are completely unprotected and exposed to be left at a checkpoint, without providing necessary care.
Muhannad Mansour, 26 years old, is one of them. Mansour and his mother work at an Israeli restaurant in Western Jerusalem as kitchen staff; “We are paid per hour” he explains, “when we don’t show up, we’re not paid”.
Until last week, Mansour went regularly to his work in Jerusalem. Then, after the coronavirus disease started spreading among Israelis, the occupation authorities limited work permits only to workers under 50 years old. Eventually, the occupation authorities made it compulsory for those who do cross into the 1948 territories to stay and sleep at their workplace. Only then, did Mansour and his mother stop going to work. “We have to take care of my younger siblings and I have another job in Ramallah. Sleeping at work is just not a choice”.
But for many others, it is the only choice. Mansour’s uncle, Jeries Kawaneh, works as a guard in a hotel in East Jerusalem, which is also isolated from the West Bank. He, on the other hand, preferred to stay at work indefinitely. His wife Hunaida says that “his work in Jerusalem is our only source of income. This is why he regularly stays for several days there. The difference now is that we don’t know when he is going to be able to come home”.
Nasser Damaj, spokesperson of the General Union of Palestine’s Workers explains that “there is simply no possible way to examine every single worker”. Damaj clarifies that “the Palestinian authority can not ask the workers not to go to work across the green line, because most of them have no alternative”. In fact, the first Palestinian to die from coronavirus, last Thursday. Was a woman in her fifties who got the virus from her son, who got it while working on the other side of the green line. As Damaj puts it “The structural dependency of the Palestinian economy makes this particular phenomenon inevitable. It is a small reflection of a larger reality; The occupation makes Palestine in general vulnerable and at the mercy of Israelí measures”.
This vulnerability is complemented by the occupation’s segregation regime. For instance, Jeries Kawaneh, who has been sleeping at his workplace, has been examined once by the Israeli health authorities, who have conducted general checkings on workplaces and was found not to be infected. But in case he was infected, he would have suffered the same fate as Malik Ghanem, being left at some checkpoint without any medical care.
This is because Kawaneh and Ghanem, just like all the Palestinian workers inside the green line, are not covered by the Israelí health insurance, unlike Israelí workers. If they are transferred to an Israelí hospital, they would have to pay for their treatment, unless their employer does, which is totally optional.
Damaj highlights that “Israelí workers all contribute with a percentage of their salaries to a health fund, from which Palestinian workers can not benefit”. This makes hiring Palestinians altogether less expensive and less risky. According to Damaj, “A Palestinian worker receives, on average, 30% of what an Israeli worker is paid”. Despite these conditions, for many Palestinian workers, taking the risk of working inside the green line is the only way of making a living for their families. “We fear that some workers would prefer not to report themselves to the Palestinian health authorities, if they feel sick, by fear of losing their jobs across the green line”, points out Nasser Damaj.
In normal times, when a Palestinian in an Israeli working place needs emergency treatment, or when any Palestinian needs advanced medical treatment, unavailable in Palestinian hospitals, the Palestinian health ministry would request a transfer to Israelí hospitals. This means that the occupation army would issue a special passing permit for the patient and the Palestinian health insurance would have to pay the Israeli hospital.
Dr, Nabil Zawahra from the Palestinian health ministry explains that “such transfers are impossible currently because the Israeli health system is focused on facing the coronavirus spread among Israelis, which has exceeded 1900 cases. There is no possible way they will make room for Palestinian patients”.
Dr. Zawahrah points out, however, that for several months, the Palestinian government has been prioritizing to make medical transfers to Jordan and reduce dependency on the Israelí system”. But even in that case, the patient needs approval from the occupation authorities, who control borders, to travel for treatment.
From a wider perspective, Palestinians who live in the West Bank have fewer chances of staying protected from COVID-19 infection, especially if they depend economically on working inside the green line. They have less chances of receiving proper medical care, especially if they show symptoms while being in an Israeli workplace. Finally, if they are properly diagnosed and hospitalized within the Palestinian health system, but their conditions deteriorate to the point they need to be transferred out of Palestine for treatment, they still depend on Israelí permission.
This was the darkest face of the coronavirus crisis in Palestine, until the first nine cases of infection were confirmed, last week, in the Gaza Strip. Now the disease is threatening to expand among 2 million Palestinians, trapped in one of the most densely populated places on earth, with less than 15 hospitals on their disposal, largely lacking medicine and equipment due to the Israeli blockade and not allowed to leave.
These conditions make an eventual scenario of a generalized epidemic simply catastrophic, which has pushed the Palestinian authority to take drastic measures in order to prevent the spread of the virus. In the view of the initial success of these measures in containing the disease, the Israeli government has released 120 million shekels to the Palestinian authority. It is the Palestinian customs money that Israel has retained for months. This highlights even further the Palestinian dependency on the occupying power, which considers the Palestinian authority to have a role of contention, for the sake of maintaining stability. Never allowing it to grow independent enough to provide its citizens with alternatives to the Israelí health services, Israeli jobs and Israeli control in general.