The Jerusalem road slides out of Ramallah’s urban casquet down to the south, where a large inscription decorating an arch welcomes travelers into Jerusalem. Past the point where Palestinian commercial bill-boards stop showing up along the road and where the road-sides are no longer nice and neat, the road crosses through endless tall residential buildings that stand behind stores, car repair shops and popular restaurants, chaotically packed beside each other on both sides of the road. In normal days it’s 40 minutes to 1-hour ride through the constant traffic-jam before arriving at the Qalandia checkpoint, where the occupation’s segregation wall and military watch-towers mark the end of the trip. But for the past month and a half, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, the trip no longer takes more than 15 minutes in the now ghost-like area.
The zone of Kufr Aqab and Semiramis has been under closure by the occupation, like the rest of the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem that are separated from the city by the occupation’s segregation wall. Despite this, there is no knowledge of the real size of Covid-19 spread in the area, as there haven’t been enough health control measures by the occupation authorities, who are supposed to be in charge of health services in these neighborhoods. This contrast indicates a situation where the pandemic seems to be more exploited than confronted by the Israeli occupation, and where near 200.000 Palestinians are being left to their fate under Coronavirus.
These “grey zones” have historically been part of Jerusalem. In fact, when ‘Israel’ occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank in June 1967, it maintained these Palestinian neighborhoods within the borders of Jerusalem’s municipality. Later in 1980, when the occupation state illegally annexed East Jerusalem, it included these neighborhoods as well, putting them under the administrative jurisdiction of the Israeli civil authorities, not the Israelí army.
However, with the growing rate of Israeli settlements in the holy city, Palestinian neighborhoods became increasingly neglected and discriminated against in development, services, and security, becoming hotbeds for poverty and crime. Then, when the occupation state began to build its segregation wall in 2002, it left large areas of Palestinian population outside of the wall. These include Kufr Aqab, Semiramis, Shuafat, Al-Ram, Anata, and Beit Hanina, forming a periphery line between the occupation wall and the zones under Palestinian administration since the Oslo accords. A series of zones technically belonging to Jerusalem, but effectively ran by nobody.
Palestinian living in these areas are officially Jerusalem residents, They have the Jerusalem residency card. A document that the occupation gave all Palestinians in East Jerusalem in 1967, allowing them to live in the city, however turning them from citizens to mere “residents” under the threat of losing their residency rights at any moment and for any excuse.
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit Palestine at the beginning of March, the Palestinian authority took strict measures to contain it as it expanded, imposing isolation, limiting movement, and conducting tests in all the areas of its administrative jurisdiction. These don’t include the Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, where the Israeli authorities are supposed to do the job. However, it wasn’t until the 13th of April that the Israeli government sent few mobile medical units to conduct Covid-19 tests, only after a petition was presented to the Israeli supreme court, on the 8th of April, demanding medical attention to these areas.
The petition was presented by advocates Suhad Bishara and Maysanah Mourani on behalf of Adalah, the legal center for the rights of Palestinians in ‘Israel’, jointly with the civil coalition for Palestinian rights in Jerusalem. Bishara and Mourani accused the Israeli government of “discriminating against Palestinian neighborhoods and ignoring the risk of the pandemic expansion among the Palestinian population, despite the fact that these areas fall under Israeli administrative jurisdiction”.
The court ruled in favor of the petition which led to the sending of the mobile units, but it has been largely symbolic. According to Bishara and Mourani, the Israeli government only sent two mobile units, to Kufr Aqab and Shuafat, conducting tens of tests so far, out of over 150.000 inhabitants.
This neglect is the continuation of a situation that residents have been forced to adapt to for years. A situation that has had heavy consequences on the population. “The Palestinian authority can not intervene here, so criminals find a safe haven in these streets” explains Daoud El Ghoul, a young activist from East Jerusalem. “The state of Israel lets the situation rot. Drug dealers and other criminal bands operate here in total impunity and under the eyes and ears of the Israelí government” he points out. To this reality, residents have tried for years to respond paying for garbage collection themselves and organizing shifts to keep the streets safe at night. But it takes more than that to contain a pandemic.
Since the beginning of March civil organizations in Shuafat refugee camp have formed a joint health committee. With the help of the UNRWA, the committee tries to provide the necessary material for disinfecting public spaces, ensure food provisions for families affected by the closure and track down the infected cases. S.A, member of the health committee and one of the few doctors in the camp, who prefers to stay anonymous said that “the Israelí mobile medical unit operated in the camp only one day, then left. It has been the joint committee formed by local residents who have done the job. We take the suspected cases to Ramallah for testing and then make sure they are quarantined”.
But even when it’s absent when it comes to health care and services, the occupation is always ready to make presence with repressive measures. The Shuafat refugee camp in particular has been closed by the occupation army for a month now. S.A says that “it has been very difficult to take people to Ramallah for testing and for Palestinian doctors to come in. Even bringing supplies has been restricted by the occupation.” even though the closure loosed-up a little in the past week, it still in place and supplies come to the camp mainly through the UNRWA.
The double policy of neglect and repression of the occupation authorities towards these areas has been the rule for years. Shuafat refugee camp in particular has been systematically targetted by demolitions in the past five years. In March last year, the occupation authorities forced a family in Shuafat to demolish their own house, with the pretext that its four floors building overlooked a near settlement. In April, the occupation bulldozers demolished two houses in the camp with the excuse that they were built without permits. In May, the occupation forces entered Shuafat at night and left a notice on the door of the camp’s services committee building, saying that it will be demolished. In June, bulldozers came back and demolished another house. In fact, according to Israelí human rights center B’tselem, the year 2019 registered the highest number of demolitions in East Jerusalem, reaching 140 demolitions only until September. That is more than all the occupation demolitions in East Jerusalem in the past 15 years combined.
The effects of this policy are aggravated by the systematic abandoning of Palestinian Jerusalemites in the midst of a pandemic. Such policy can only have one effect, on the population, which is to push them out of the zone, silently and in the long term. This becomes clearer as Israeli leaders precipitate to annex parts of the West Bank, which would include illegal settlers into the limits of Jerusalem, changing the demographics of the holy city and its surroundings, repeating the colonial replacement process that was triggered in 1948. A scenario that makes every act of Palestinians to stay and build a life in these “grey zones” of Jerusalem behind the wall, in and of itself, a daily act of resistance.