Compassion and Hope amid lockdown in the Holy Land

Marc Falconer is a member of Embrace the Middle East’s Scottish Volunteer Hub and a student in Divinity at the University of Aberdeen. He currently lives in Jerusalem, and here shares his perspective on the Covid-19 outbreak and its impact upon our friends and partners in the region.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. 

(Heb. 1:12)

We shall steer safely through every storm, so long as our heart is right, our intention fervent, our courage steadfast, and our trust fixed on God. If at times we are somewhat stunned by the tempest, never fear. Let us take breath and go on afresh.

(Saint Francis de Sales)

At a time when the world is self-isolating and trying to understand how to manage, and eventually recover from, the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic, it is important that we take time to stop and think about our partners and friends still living under occupation in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and Gaza.

Bethlehem has been closed off for almost ten weeks after a number of cases of Coronavirus were found at a local hotel visited by tourists diagnosed with the condition. These closures are not something imposed by the occupation, but rather through agreement between the Israeli authorities and Palestinian Authority. At first, those from Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahour saw restrictions increase on an almost daily basis: from no one being able to enter or leave the area through the now well-established checkpoints into Israeli territory, to the hasty deployment of concrete blocks on the streets to stop cars, at which military and police are monitoring all movements. People are struggling. Bethlehem was already stifled under occupation, and with weeks of restrictions, people have sometimes been unable to get the most basic of items. Shops have been finding it difficult to get stock and road restrictions are making it difficult for those who need to purchase items to get to stores. 

The Palestinian Authority are still trying to stave off any large increase in cases, preserving their state of emergency after the Israeli government announced a partial lifting of lockdown two weeks ago. Simply, local medical facilities would not cope with a serious outbreak, and the PA are taking draconian measures to this end. Many Palestinians with the virus are made to leave their homes and are housed in local hotels, partly so that their condition can be monitored and partly so that they cannot ignore the need to isolate and thereby infect others. This practice of hotel isolation has had its problems: friends of mine who were infected (now recovering) have told me of a lack of food and drink at the beginning of their isolation; others have told me how medical staff were monitoring them with little or no protection. By all accounts these situations have now improved but the Palestinian Authority continues to plead for help from Israel and the international community to access the masks, protective clothing, hand sanitiser and other essential resources needed to reduce the risk of infection spreading to health and support workers who are so fundamental to restricting the spread of this virus.

 

Those Palestinians with West Bank ID cards who work in Israel are stuck in a grey space between regulations. They are, at the same time, supposed to follow both Palestinian Authority and Israeli Government regulations and restrictions. In the past week those who wish to continue working in Israel have been forced to distance themselves from their families and find accommodation in Israel for at least two months. They are no longer allowed to cross the checkpoints every day.

In Gaza, where life has been in social and economic lockdown since 2007, the situation continues to be dire and the arrival of Covid-19 is a cause for alarm. As has become the norm, not enough medical supplies are getting through the crossings according to our partners there.  Access to care is already severely limited in the Gaza Strip, which is a cause of the higher incidence of significant underlying health issues, such as respiratory disease. This makes the already hard-pressed population especially vulnerable. While emergency capacity is being increased through make-shift quarantine centres such as tents and mobile ‘containers’, our partner at Al Ahli hospital has issued an urgent call for additional help to prevent an already overstretched system becoming overwhelmed   

In East Jerusalem, Palestinians live under Israeli regulations and restrictions, however, the pandemic has shown serious inequalities in the resources available to deal with the pandemic in these areas. There are no temporary test stations, the pharmacies have run out of hand sanitiser, and fear is widespread.

In the midst of this emergency, the Israeli government has nevertheless green-lighted the expansion of Efrat settlement, redesigntating Palestinian land near Bethlehem for the building of 7000 new houses. Neither has the pandemic stopped the activities of settlers in the Jordan Valley and around Bethlehem, uprooting Olive trees, or congregating at Jacob’s Well near Nablus to pray. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, night raids and arrests continue, and the harassment of people continues (especially in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Issawiya).

But, in the midst of all this seeming darkness, the “cloud of witnesses” continues to try and steer the community through this storm. Local churches throughout East Jerusalem and the West Bank are trying their best to supply those most in need with the essentials for everyday life, priests and pastors are live-streaming services, calling members of their community, and encouraging those who can, to look out for those around them who are at high risk. The Palestinian Christian and Muslim community have come together to support one another in prayer and action. Organisations, including Embrace partners, are trying to help in whatever way they can, for instance the East Jerusalem YMCA are collecting donations of food and equipment for those most in need.

In Bethlehem, one of our partners working with disabled people has joined their local WHO (World Health Organisation) health cluster, and while their outreach team can't leave the Bethlehem area, each of their programmes has prepared an emergency plan in anticipation of a widespread outbreak, with a view to ensuring these lifeline services go on. They’ve also rapidly prepared resources for tackling the expected deterioration in mental health, as well as distributing leaflets for the community with emergency contact numbers and instructions about how to protect oneself from Coronavirus. Moreover, as a ray of hope in the gathering gloom, our reconciliation partner in Jerusalem reports that their programme participants are getting very creative in supporting each other by delivering food, medical supplements and helping each other in daily life. In this sense, one partner told us, "this situation is in fact also an opportunity to spread the message of reconciliation, peace and conflict resolution as it is obviously applicable.” 

The message from the local community throughout has been, ‘do not despair, we are here, we remain here, and we, together, will persevere and steer through this ongoing storm’.

Indeed, this storm may be subsiding. With the number of daily cases now below 30, a full reopening of Israel is planned for mid-June, with the exception of flights for non-citizens. Bethlehem is currently ‘clean’ of the virus and Palestinian cases nationally are on a downward trend. There is even hope that, after Ramadan, the main checkpoints into and out of Bethlehem may be reopened and public transport between Bethlehem and Jerusalem restored. While the Old City of Jerusalem is still very quiet with places of worship, including the Holy Sepulchre, still closed, people are gradually returning to this liminal place, and with them its heart and soul.

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