Israeli neglect fuels coronavirus in East Jerusalem

Man sits on a bench in empty market

Palestinians in empty market in Jerusalem’s Old City on 6 April. 

Muhammed Qarout Idkaidek APA images

Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem face the prospect of a major coronavirus outbreak, fueled and exacerbated by Israeli neglect.

Despite repeated warnings from health professionals and even Israel’s mayor of Jerusalem Moshe Leon, Israel has done little to prevent an outbreak.

What makes the situation even worse is no one has an accurate picture of how widespread infections are in Palestinian neighborhoods.

“Of increasing concern is the lack of information regarding cases in East Jerusalem, as these are not covered by the Palestinian Ministry of Health and are not disaggregated in the overall figures by the Israeli authorities,” the UN humanitarian coordination agency OCHA said on Tuesday.

There are about 300 confirmed cases in the West Bank, outside Jerusalem, while Israel has recorded more than 12,000 cases.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in East Jerusalem went from five to almost 100 in the past three weeks alone, according to some reports.

Despite the lack of testing in the area, Israeli police shut down a coronavirus clinic in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on Tuesday.

Israeli police questioned neighbors and arrested four activists involved in setting up the clinic.

Ignoring obligations

The reason was that the clinic was operating in collaboration with the Palestinian Authority.

Israel has annexed occupied East Jerusalem in defiance of international law and claims the entire city as its capital – an assertion rejected by all but a handful of countries.

As part of its effort to assert its exclusive claim to Jerusalem, Israel bans the Palestinian Authority from activities in the city, while it neglects the needs of the Palestinian population.

Silwan contains almost half of the known coronavirus cases in Jerusalem and has a shortage in testing supplies, according to local health experts.

Silwan, along with Shuafat refugee camp, Kufr Aqab, Issawiyeh and neighboring areas are under the control of the Israeli Jerusalem municipality.

This means that the lockdown imposed by the Palestinian Authority in the parts of the occupied West Bank it controls does not apply to residents of those neighborhoods.

At the same time, Israel is not fulfilling its obligations towards them.

“The Israeli health ministry is responsible for ensuring the health and well-being of these residents, as the Palestinian health ministry is not allowed to give them any services,” Adalah, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, stated.

Last week, Leon, the Israeli mayor, accused Israel’s health ministry of neglecting Palestinian hospitals in the eastern sector of the city.

“I would like to warn you regarding the serious shortage of medical equipment at the hospitals in East Jerusalem, particularly protective equipment and equipment to conduct coronavirus testing,” he wrote to the ministry.

Of the six hospitals in East Jerusalem, only two are equipped with special coronavirus units.

OCHA notes that the Jerusalem hospitals serving Palestinians “continue to suffer from chronic underfunding, which hinders the provision of medical drugs and treatment.”

The European Union last week announced an emergency aid package of around $71 million to help Palestinians fight the pandemic. It includes almost $10 million in additional funding for the East Jerusalem hospitals.

Another obstacle is that Israel treats many Palestinian Jerusalemites as if they were living illegally in their own city. This will make many afraid to seek medical treatment, fearing it could result in their expulsion.

Pledge to open clinics

Adalah accused the Israeli health ministry of putting the lives of Palestinians in East Jerusalem neighborhoods at “grave risk” and demanded testing.

The group submitted an urgent petition to Israel’s high court on 8 April demanding an explanation for why the health ministry is failing to provide adequate resources to neighborhoods including Shuafat refugee camp and Kufr Aqab.

Although Israel considers these neighborhoods to be part of its “capital,” they are cut off from the rest of the city by Israel’s separation wall.

They are also among the city’s most overcrowded neighborhoods.

In response, Israel committed on Monday to open clinics and testing centers for some 150,000 East Jerusalem residents, starting Tuesday.

Adalah welcomed this “important step,” but said it was not enough and came too late.

“In the absence of coronavirus testing over the past month and a half, Israel does not have the slightest idea about the extent of the virus’ spread in these Palestinian neighborhoods,” the group said.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.