The COVID-19 pandemic is not an equalizer.
Rather, it has exposed systems of inequality in seemingly modern health care systems and brought already worn-down ones to the brink of collapse.
The case of occupied East Jerusalem is particularly revealing.
The pandemic unmasked and exacerbated the horrors of Israeli military occupation in the city, according to a new report by the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, the UK-based charity Medical Aid for Palestinians and the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967 and formally annexed it in 1980.
Israel has specific obligations under international law to guarantee health and other basic services to Palestinians living under its military rule.
Far from respecting its obligations, Israel’s systemic neglect and continuous violence in East Jerusalem became increasingly evident during the pandemic.
Israel took a business as usual approach when it came to oppressing Palestinians.
The Israeli authorities failed to set up COVID-19 testing facilities in a timely manner, failed to provide accurate and reliable data to track the spread of the virus, harassed and arrested Palestinian health activists, and hindered the procurement of essential equipment by hospitals.
“Palestinians have become ill-equipped to deal with any public health crisis, let alone the outbreak of a pandemic such as COVID-19,” the report states.
Lack of testing facilities
It took more than one month from the first confirmed coronavirus case in Israel for it to set up a testing facility in East Jerusalem.
The drive-through facility was installed in the Jabal al-Mukabbir neighborhood, which lies outside Israel’s annexation wall, following legal pressure from Palestinian human rights groups.
It was nearly two months later that Israel set up testing centers beyond the wall, and it was only done after Adalah, a human rights group, filed a petition with Israel’s high court.
The delays in carrying out testing for Palestinians were discriminatory by nature as they “sharply contrast with the urgency and speed in reacting to the needs of the Israeli-Jewish population.”
The “discriminatory” delays were arguably what “most powerfully articulates” Israel’s neglect in containment efforts.
But delays were not the only problems.
“Eligibility to be tested in these facilities is conditioned upon membership in a private Israeli health maintenance organization, which a significant portion of Palestinians lack,” the report states.
Israel gives free health care to official Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, who account for only 40 percent of its population.
When Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, it only counted Palestinians who were physically present in the city.
Those who were abroad for any reason – including work and study – were not counted and they were “arbitrarily stripped of their residency rights in Jerusalem.”
Until this day, Palestinians must prove that their “center of life” is in Jerusalem in order to live in the city where they were born.
Tracking the number of confirmed cases in East Jerusalem has been an inconsistent and unreliable process.
Due to the nature of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, Israel’s health ministry is the only body that has access to figures on Palestinians infected by the virus in the city.
In the absence of disaggregated data, according to the report, three different bodies count the number of confirmed cases: Israel’s health ministry, the Israeli-controlled Jerusalem municipality and groups within the Jerusalem Alliance to Confront the Coronavirus Pandemic.
This has created a disparity in numbers, and so neither the Palesitnian Authority’s health ministry nor the World Health Organization has a clear outlook on the scale of the outbreak in East Jerusalem.
Hospital neglect and defunding
The effects of Israel’s chronic neglect and weakening of Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem became evident during the pandemic.
Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza depend on hospitals in East Jerusalem for care they cannot receive elsewhere.
Three hospitals in East Jerusalem have been designated for coronavirus care: al-Makassed Hospital, Augusta Victoria Hospital and Saint Joseph Hospital.
“The pandemic hit at a time when all of these hospitals were already facing exceptionally dire economic conditions and chronic underfunding,” the report states.
In 2018, the Trump administration slashed more than $25 million in approved aid for six hospitals in East Jerusalem.
Combined, the three hospitals designated for COVID-19 care only have 22 ventilators and 62 beds for coronavirus patients.
While Palestinians can seek medical treatment in Israeli hospitals, “the availability of Israeli hospitals also does not absolve the Israeli occupying authorities from responsibility for the deliberate weakening, de-development and systematic neglect of Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem,” the report says.
Attacking health activists
Israeli forces persisted in their attacks on health activists during the pandemic.
Israel systematically targeted and arrested activists distributing informative leaflets around the city, and detained Palestinians volunteering to disinfect public spaces, such as mosques.
Israeli forces even raided a testing facility in the Silwan area, initially arguing that it was run by unlicensed doctors and then claiming the pretext of the closure was that the facility’s activities were overseen by the Palestinian Authority.
In fact, the doctor administering the facility was licensed by Israel, he confirmed to the human rights groups who compiled the new report.
“Regardless of the pretext, the very fact that Palestinians were forced to set up a testing center on their own, and the subsequent closure of the center by the occupying power, is a testament to Israel’s consistent failure to meet its obligations to uphold the rights to health and life of Palestinians without discrimination.”
There are currently almost 12,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the occupied West Bank. This includes more than 2,100 in East Jerusalem.
There are 75 confirmed cases in the Gaza Strip. So far, 70 Palestinians have died of the disease.
By denying basic health care to Palestinians – and, worse, attacking their health care facilities – Israel has made it inevitable that the death toll will rise.