Palestinian health officials in the West Bank are growing increasingly concerned as the number of corona cases continue to rise. There are at least 13,450 cases in the West Bank and at least 75 people have died.
In many ways, the situation mimics that of Israel, where success in fighting off an initial wave led to quickly reopening and then a sharp rise in cases.
“Initially it was quite a success story here in Palestine,” says Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the West Bank office of the World Health Organization (WHO), in an interview. “When we saw the first corona cases starting in March quite decisive public health measures were taken both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip that really prevented an initial peak. But then after all these restrictions and measures were lifted we see now quite an exponential increase in community transmission, particularly in the West Bank, particularly in Hebron, where there’s quite some exchange and population movement between Israel and the West Bank.” The situation is complicated by the fact that in May, the Palestinian Authority announced it was halting all ties with Israel to protest Israel’s planned annexation of part of the West Bank, as allowed in the Trump plan. That annexation, which was originally slated for July 1, hasn’t happened yet, and by most accounts, seems unlikely to happen now before the US election.
But the Palestinian decision meant that any Israeli-Palestinian cooperation during the pandemic ceased, making it harder for international aid to get to the Palestinians. The World Bank this week announced it would give $30 million in emergency aid to the West Bank, both to pay salaries of civil servants, which haven’t been paid their full salaries in months, and for job creation.
The WHO’s Dr. Rockenschaub says the Palestinian decision to cut off ties with Israel has complicated the situation.
“There are huge challenges at the moment with importing humanitarian shipments,” he says. “We are working closely with other UN agencies to find an alternative mechanism to clear those shipments. There are some 30 shipments at the moment pending, some of them have been already cleared through this new mechanism but there is some backlog that is gradually now worked upon to mobilize those supplies and equipment and deliver it to the Palestinian Authority.” The epicenter of the pandemic in the West Bank has been in the southern West Bank city of Hebron, with more than 200,000 residents living in the city. More than half of the diagnosed cases have come from Hebron, followed by east Jerusalem.
Health officials say there are several reasons that Hebron has been the focus of the pandemic, including the fact that many residents of Hebron work in Israel.
“These workers go back and forth through checkpoints,” says Huda Abuarquob, the regional director of Middle East Peace, in an interview. “The workers who go back and forth don’t get tested because, there are no facilities to do that. They come back to Hebron which is a big city with tribal system. It’s is the summer, it’s the season for weddings and celebrations of all kinds, and people get together.” Palestinian officials have tried to prevent large gatherings, and schools have been closed for months. But Palestinian hsoptials do not have the testing capacity of neighboring Israel, and has done far fewer corona tests.
The situation is complicated further by the fact that the West Bank is divided into three parts: Areas A, B, and C. In Area C, which makes up 60 percent of the West Bank, and where all of the Jewish settlers live, Israel maintains complete control. There are up to 300,000 Palestinians living in Area C, who have not had access to adequate health care because of the pandemic.
“The West Bank has been under military occupation and the health care system does not have the necessary infrastructure or human capacity to really address a huge surge in COVID-19 cases,” says Aisha Mansour, the director of Medical Aid to the Palestinians (MAP). “For now, the number of cases that require critical care are a small number of cases, but should they rise it could be catastrophic.” Like in Israel, there has been growing dissatisfaction with the way the Palestinian Authority has handled the pandemic.
“In terms of the support for the Palestinian Authority government, in the Palestinian territories the support is coming down to zero,” Abuarquob says. “There is a huge amount of resentment that is expressed by all kinds of people.” So far, unlike in Israel, there have not been large-scale demonstrations against the government, but as unemployment grows, especially among the youth, analysts say it could easily happen. International aid agencies and even private individuals are stepping in to help.
The international artist Banksy recently donated a painting of a Mediterranean shipwreck that raised almost three million dollars to build a new stroke unit at a hospital in Bethlehem. The Palestinian town is also the site of his Walled Off Hotel, next to the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank.
When it comes to the Gaza Strip and the more than two million Palestinians who live there, the situation is both better and worse than the West Bank. The number of corona cases has remained very low, partly because Gaza is closed off from both Israel and Egypt.
“In terms of Gaza, the numbers have continued to be low, which is fortunate, and this is due to strong control in quarantining and infection prevention,” says Aisha Mansour of MAP. “But Gaza has been under a blockade for 13 years, and the infrastructure of the health system is poor, there are continuous shortages of supplies and medications so any surge in cases in Gaza would be catastrophic.” The severing of ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has already taken a heavy toll. Gaza is run by the Islamist Hamas movement, which Israel says is a terrorist organization and does not have direct ties with it. However, the Palestinian Authority facilitates and pays for cancer treatment for tens of thousands of Palestinians from Gaza, who travel either to Arab hospitals in east Jerusalem, or to Israeli hospitals.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OSHA) said that two infants from Gaza died after their exit arrangements for treatment in Israel and east Jerusalem were delayed.
UN officials say they are trying to set up a mechanism to coordinate between he two sides. Israeli officials say they are willing to continue accepting patients who need care. The Israeli facility that deals with Palestinians, Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), has set up an application form on its website for humanitarian cases.
Five Israeli human rights organizations – including Physician for Human Rights (PHR) and Gisha – urges COGAT, Israel’s Defense Ministry and the Israeli attorney general “to lift restrictions and to enable Palestinians to travel outside of Gaza through the Erez crossing beyond urgent medical cases and regardless of Palestinian coordination bodies.”