Watch: Virtual briefing on COVID-19 & the systematic neglect of East Jerusalem

Last month, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) launched a briefing paper with Al Haq and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), COVID-19 and the systematic neglect of Palestinians in East Jerusalem. The paper explores the impact of prolonged occupation, illegal annexation and structural discrimination on Palestinians in the city, and how these have undermined access to healthcare for Palestinians during the pandemic.

On 23 July, MAP hosted the three lead authors for a virtual briefing. Rohan Talbot, MAP’s Advocacy & Campaigns Manager introduced the event and the panellists, at a time when the government of Israel threatens to formally annex further areas of the West Bank beyond East Jerusalem, and as the pandemic moves into a chronic phase, with the city experiencing a surge in cases. Rohan described MAP’s emergency response in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Gaza and refugee camps in Lebanon, which has included “infection prevention and containment, providing hygiene kits to quarantined families, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers, COVID-19 testing kits and disinfectants to help prevent further spread of the disease,” and underlined that many of the barriers to Palestinians’ rights to health and dignity “are political, economic and social.” 

Aseel Baidoun, MAP’s Advocacy and Communications Officer in the West Bank, described how the policies and practices of Israel, which illegally annexed East Jerusalem in 1967 and remains the occupying power, affect the day-to-day life of its Palestinian residents.

Aseel highlighted how Israel’s discriminatory planning and zoning policies haves resulted in overcrowding, and how the Separation Wall and its associated permit and closure regime, have sealed off Palestinians in the city of Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank

Palestinian Jerusalem communities beyond the wall such as Kufr ‘Aqab, Shu’fat refugee camp and ‘Anata have become a neglected “a no-man’s land” without adequate public services, though Israeli military raids, arrest operations, and house demolitions continue.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Aseel explained, has been exacerbated by these discriminatory policies and practices including:

“long delays in opening testing centres for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, delays in the provision of quarantine facilities, harassment, arrests, and persecution of local volunteers distributing aid materials and food stuffs, closures of community-led initiatives to contain COVID-19 and raise awareness as to the pandemic, and the initial failure even to provide data on the numbers and rate of infections in Palestinian communities as well as to issue information and guidance for the Arabic-speaking public.”

Aseel spoke from her own experience of seeking prenatal care:

“[M]y pregnancy booklet is all in Hebrew- all the information, dates of check ups and results of tests are in a language that I don’t understand. And when I asked for an English or an Arabic alternative, it did not exist. Imagine, your personal medical record is in a language that you don’t speak, even my language makes up 40% of the city’s population.”

Rania Muhareb, Legal Researcher and Advocacy Officer at Al-Haq outlined the international legal framework which governs Israel’s actions as an occupying power in East Jerusalem, and its obligations towards Palestinian health and healthcare.

She explained how “Israel’s strategic fragmentation of the Palestinian people politically, legally, and geographically, as well as de-development of Palestinian healthcare” have left Palestinians “ill-equipped to deal with any public health crisis, let alone the outbreak of a pandemic such as COVID-19.”

“It is the right of the occupied Palestinian people to develop a functioning healthcare system and to provide and receive the treatment they need in Palestinian hospitals,” Rania observed, highlighting that Israel’s duties under International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights law obligate it to adopt measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 , ensure adequate supplies and facilities to treat the sick, and to not inhibit the work of Palestinian volunteers and health workers responding to the pandemic. Israel is further obligated to fulfil the underlying determinants of health and well-being, such as “such as the right to adequate housing, water, sanitation, and food, the right to work and education, the right of access to information, and the right to a life of dignity,” all of which, however, are detrimentally affected by the occupation, resulting in clear health inequalities.

Rania highlighted recommendations to third states, including the UK, to “put pressure on Israel to end policies of systematic neglect, which disproportionately impact Palestinian health outcomes, as well as all forms of illegal collective punishment – as recently recommended by the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine – comprising policies driving Palestinian transfer from Jerusalem, such as residency revocation, as well as closures and movement restrictions.” She  “stressed the need for genuine accountability, including through international legal avenues in order to prevent future violations, provide justice to Palestinian victims, and end Israeli impunity.”

Budour Hassan, Legal Researcher, the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre (JLAC) placed the discussion in the wider political context, in particular the threat of further annexation by Israel:

“Perhaps it is a testament to the fluidity of attention or political affairs or how quickly things change that within the space of just two weeks attention here has shifted from the talk of formal annexation of areas of the West Bank, particularly Area C, into the second wave of the pandemic that is hitting Jerusalem and the West Bank and the rest of the areas controlled or occupied by Israel very hard.”

Budour argued it is a question of not if, but when and how annexation will happen, suggesting that it is helpful to explore the issues facing Palestinians in East Jerusalem because “Jerusalem gives us quite a clear picture of what annexation can look like when it is formally upheld when it has been for decades implemented on the ground.” Though further annexation has been delayed, she urged attendees not to forget about this issue, arguing that Israel has “accustomed us to implementing many of its steps in instalments” as seen through the creeping de facto annexation and land confiscation in the West Bank over many decades.

Budour gave the experience of a colleague based in Jerusalem who tested positive for COVID-19 and had to self-quarantine at home:

“So this colleague is self-quarantined  with her four children and her partner in a 50m2 home. … Her children can’t even go outside, she can’t even have anything resembling adequate housing. So when we say coronavirus meets the occupation, or the systematic injustice created by the occupation, this is what we mean.”

 “The situation can’t go back to what it was”, she concluded, “because it was never normal … this state of exception that Palestinians have been forced to normalise for decades has never resembled normalcy.”

To round out the discussion, the panellists answered questions from the audience on the topics of the barriers to access to healthcare in East Jerusalem for Palestinians living in other areas of the occupied Palestinian territory; funding challenges for East Jerusalem hospitals; the interrelation between the dire economic situation and Palestinians’ health; and what individuals can do to help address this situation.

You can watch the event in full above, and read the briefing paper here.

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