Falling between the cracks in Jerusalem

A uniformed man in a protective face mask raises his index finger at a group of men without masks

Israeli forces, wearing protective face masks, check ID cards of Palestinians in front of the Damascus gate in Jerusalem’s occupied Old City, which is on lockdown in an effort to control the spread of coronavirus.

Muhammed Qarout Idkaidek APA images

In this part of our ailing world, like everywhere else, Palestinians count theirs and Israelis theirs, as the number of those infected with the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, continues to rise.

But it is not at all clear whose statistics I would boost should I be unlucky enough to contract the virus.

Why? I am a Palestinian of uncertain status living in occupied East Jerusalem.

Like everyone else on this planet right now, I am trying to ride out this wave as safely as possible for myself and my family.

And yet, while I follow all the recommendations of the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and governments (both Israeli and Palestinian) to wash hands, physically isolate and work from home, my situation is uniquely precarious.

I do all this from my little home in the Old City of Jerusalem, tucked cozily away in the heart of the Muslim Quarter. And while I may sometimes feel as if I were the only one in my situation, I am surely not. There are tens of thousands of people just like me.

Here is our problem: Without permits from the Israeli authorities to stay in Jerusalem – where we have families, or property, or work, or where we are from – we have no health insurance and are at risk of being “returned” to the West Bank.

Now, I hold both Palestinian and American citizenship. However, for the purpose of this article, I will disregard my red, white and blue identity given it offers me absolutely no protection against the whims of Israeli military rule.

I have lived for over two decades in this Old City home with my husband and two children, but have no legal residency rights. For the first 11 years, I was living here “illegally” in Jerusalem because of the lag in Israel’s processing of family reunification applications for Palestinians in Jerusalem.

Permits and population control

For the past 10 years, the Israeli interior ministry did issue me such a permit – annually renewed and contingent upon a plethora of papers proving my place of residency – just so I can live in my house without fear of being arrested or deported.

Kafkaesque bureaucracy aside, in those 10 years, I had started to get comfortable with my status in Jerusalem. I was not a citizen of Israel, not even a permanent resident of the city like my husband and kids, but at least I was something of a legal tenant, if you will.

I could ride the bus (though not drive anything), cross checkpoints and actually sleep in my own bed without worrying about a knock at the door from an Israeli officer who would inform me I was being deported to the West Bank for “illegally” living in the city.

Recently, however, I have been unwittingly caught in limbo. That is, I have not been refused a family reunification permit per se, but neither has it been renewed, ostensibly pending Israeli police – and now court – approval.

What that means in real terms is that my permit allowing me to travel within Jerusalem and to and from the West Bank has not been issued. What’s more, and more worrying under the circumstances, my Israeli health insurance has been revoked.

Hence, the precariousness of my current situation.

Let’s say I contract the novel coronavirus and become gravely ill with COVID-19. As the occupying authority in Jerusalem, Israel is in control of medical services in the city. So, if I were to go to an Israeli hospital, I would have to show my ID card and – if I did not want to pay through the nose – my health insurance card.

Let me just add: Israel has one of the best health systems in the world. I’m not going to lie, I enjoyed the sense of security during those few years I had insurance.

Well, not anymore, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. Since my ID is issued in the West Bank, this effectively excludes me from any rights in Jerusalem.

Not only would I risk being turned away at an Israeli hospital, I would open a can of administrative/punitive worms with the Israeli authorities – which have not been shy of continuing their oppressive measures against Palestinians during this pandemic – as to why I have not moved back to the West Bank, even though my case is still pending.

Why not move to the West Bank? Well for one, I have no medical insurance there. But, much more importantly, my family isn’t there. Once in the West Bank I would not be allowed to see them. What if one of them contracted the virus and was hospitalized? How would I be able to reach them?

Fear and contagion

So, adopting a “best of two evils” philosophy, I’ve opted to sit it out in Jerusalem, in the confines of my home and in the hope that all my rigorous hand washing, sanitizing and social distancing will pay off in the end and I and my family will come out the other side relatively unscathed.

When I do venture out, it is only to buy groceries and I always take my “legal resident” husband with me for backup just in case we get stopped and questioned. These days Israeli police are patrolling the streets more than ever, on the lookout for feverish citizens or wayward individuals who defy their quarantine.

Mine is an unsettling existence. I’ve fallen between the cracks of a discriminatory and segregationist system. But I am hardly an anomaly. Being a Palestinian resident in Jerusalem – “legal” or “illegal” – already relegates one to second-class status, including in the provision of health care.

In this new pandemic world we live in, Palestinian Jerusalemites still have to deal with police and army raids, arrests and harassment in addition to the concern of a coronavirus outbreak in their community.

Just the other night, Israeli police stormed our neighborhood, arrested a young man from his house and sprayed us all with pepper spray.

The residents of the neighborhood rushed to the man’s rescue, scuffling with the police, pushing, shoving and yelling. These types of raids are traumatic enough in normal times much less now when there is the threat of a lethal virus looming over us.

Needless to say, there was no physical distancing that night, what with the young man’s family, friends and neighbors all trying to rescue him from the clutches of ungloved, unmasked Israeli police, brandishing pepper spray, guns and nightsticks in our equally unmasked faces.

Thus my latest worry is that one or more of the people pushed up against one another that night from either side of the political divide is carrying the virus (whether they know it or not) and that an unknown number of us has contracted it as a result.

I covered my mouth and nose, both from the sting of the pepper spray and from any invisible virus-laden particles that might have been hovering in the atmosphere. Only the coming several days will tell if that was enough.

J. Ahmad lives in Jerusalem. She is writing under a pseudonym.