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    Coping with the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem, May 2020

    Dr. Amnon Ramon, Senior Researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research

    Yohanan Tzoref, expert in Palestinian Affairs, INSS; previously advisor on Arab Affairs to the Civil Administration in the Gaza Strip, and head of the Palestinian-Arab Department at the Ministry of Intelligence and Strategic Affairs


    The article presented here is the first extant study to document the spread of the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem, and the response to it on the part of East Jerusalem civil society and the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

    Full Article – Hebrew

    Situation Report

    As of early May 2020, the situation with respect to the spread of the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem was still unclear:

    It seemed that the morbidity rates were low in comparison with West Jerusalem and mainly in comparison with the Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. At the end of April there were 150 verified Coronavirus patients (including two women who died) in East Jerusalem out of a total of 3,458 verified patients in the entire city (4.3%).[i]

    However, among those familiar with the subject, it is widely believed that the true picture of the status of the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem is unknown.

    Reasons for Lack of Clarity about the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem

    • Lack of sufficient awareness of the symptoms of the virus and of the importance of testing for it among some sectors of East Jerusalem society
    • The absence of an official data base that is regularly updated which would reveal the number of those who have contracted the virus in East Jerusalem (The Health Ministry has not published official data about the morbidity rates in East Jerusalem.)
    • Difficulties related to the systematic and precise registration of residents according to the neighborhoods where they live make it impossible to provide an accurate description of the status of the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem

    The appointment of a senior IDF officer as advisor to Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon[ii]  and the opening of a special situation room at the Jerusalem Municipality for the management of the response to the pandemic signify anxiety about a widespread outbreak in East Jerusalem during the month of Ramadan, which could potentially affect the entire city. Concern about another wave of contagion is also evident among East Jerusalem residents. To date, only a few parents have sent their children back to the municipal schools, which opened on a partial basis on May 4 – among other reasons because of claims that due to the conditions in East Jerusalem schools, teaching and learning cannot take place according to the new Education Ministry guidelines.

    A new notable aspect of the efforts to respond to the current crisis is the cooperation that has emerged between the Israeli authorities (headed by the Municipality) and Palestinian groups and institutions which represent a developing civil society, on both the neighborhood and municipal levels. Other characteristics unique to East Jerusalem are the competition and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) to provide Coronavirus-related services (tests, evacuating those infected to quarantine locations, closing stores, and enforcing the curfew), mainly in the Kafr Aqab area situated in the north of the city and located beyond the Security Fence, yet still under Israeli sovereignty and within the urban jurisdiction of the Jerusalem Municipality.

    [i] The data, which are accurate as of April 31, 2020, include statistics about East Jerusalem which are based on the report which appears on the Facebook page of the mayor of Jerusalem, in Arabic. According to reports from the Palestinian Authority from May 5, 2020, 169 people in East Jerusalem neighborhoods had contracted the Coronavirus

    [ii] We refer readers to an article by Yaniv Kubovich and Nir Hasson titled, “Senior Israeli Army Commander Appointed to Handle Coronavirus Crisis in East Jerusalem”, Haaretz, April 21, 2020.

    *A short version of this article was published as part of the Institute for National Security Studies series – INSS Insight. The article is part of a collaborative study between the INSS and the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research about subjects pertaining to East Jerusalem.

     The Spread of the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem

    The Coronavirus was first identified in Beit Safafa – it apparently spread there due to the close connections between that neighborhood and Beit Jala and Bethlehem – which is where the first people from East Jerusalem were infected by a group of tourists from Greece. The first seriously ill person was 38-year-old Johny Majlaton, the bus driver for the tour group, who was hospitalized with the coronavirus in the Baruch Padeh Medical Center in Tiberias and subsequently recovered.

    Lack of awareness and insufficient testing characterized the first phase of response to the virus. In a letter published by journalist Suleiman Maswadeh from the Kan 11 television channel on March 29, 2020, a nurse from East Jerusalem who works at Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital addressed Moshe Bar Siman Tov, Director General of the Health Ministry, asserting that the ministry was not monitoring the situation in East Jerusalem:

    “I live in the Sharafat-Beit Safafa neighborhood in Jerusalem, and over the past week I have heard about several residents of my neighborhood who tested positive for the virus, and I have even met some of them who are hospitalized in my department at work. And yet to my amazement when I went into the Health Ministry map [published on March 29, 2020] zero cases were reported in my neighborhood, even though that is not accurate. In Shuafat, Beit Hanina, East Jerusalem and in Arab villages in the center and north of the country there are no reports of Coronavirus patients and no investigation has been made into those who tested positive for the virus, even though there are quite a few cases!”

    Fuad Abu Hamed, the Director of the Clalit Health fund in Beit Safafa, who has become a major activist in the efforts to fight the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem claimed that in East Jerusalem the Health Ministry did not conduct sufficient tests, did not publicize in an organized manner the data about those infected, did not undertake epidemiological studies, and did not publish information about the locations visited by those who tested positive, as it did in the Jewish sector:

    “They neglect us. There are people in quarantine but no one is following these cases. When we suspect that people have contracted the Coronavirus we advise them to call 101 [Magen David Adom] or the Health Ministry. Most of the people manning the phones at these centers do not speak Arabic, and in East Jerusalem not everyone speaks Hebrew. When someone is identified as having contracted Corona an investigation must be made and he must be questioned about where he has been and who he has been in contact with so that all those people can be informed that they must be isolated.”

    To date, no such official recording of Coronavirus-related data has taken place. In addition to these difficulties, some of which were also revealed in the Jewish sector, many of those infected in East Jerusalem were anxious both about being tested and the stigma attached to having contracted the virus, and families balked at publicizing the names of their relatives who were infected. There was little material in Arabic about the virus and the residents did not receive reliable information, all of which increased the fear and panic in East Jerusalem.

    The preceding descriptions reflect the chaos that characterized the initial response of the Israeli authorities to the spread of the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem. The administration of the tests by Magen David Adom (MDA) volunteers rather than by the staff at health fund clinics, which are situated all across East Jerusalem, created great difficulties and revealed the lack of the means with which to contend with the virus on the part of the official bodies in Israel, starting with the Ministry of Health. Into this vacuum poured the activists, civil society groups and organizations in East Jerusalem, and later the Municipality and Jerusalem Mayor Leon.

    The beginning of the Israeli establishment’s change in approach to the spread of the Coronavirus in East Jerusalem can be traced to April 2, 2020, and the opening of the “Drive Through” center for the residents of East Jerusalem, which was situated at the western entrance to the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood at the initiative of Mayor Leon. This was about two weeks after the first testing center was opened at Ganei Yehoshua in Tel Aviv, on March 20, and about one week following the opening of a testing center near the Teddy Stadium in West Jerusalem on March 24.

    The opening of the center was part of efforts aiming to increase the number of tests provided in the east of the city via MDA, with the assistance of personnel from the Municipal Supervision Division of the Jerusalem Municipality. The mayor urged the residents of East Jerusalem, “not to be ashamed and to go out and get tested.”

    Analysis and Conclusions

    Reciprocal Relationships and Connections

    In part, the spread of the Coronavirus in Jerusalem and its surroundings demonstrates the reciprocal relationships and close connections between the two sections of the city, while at the same time it illustrates the strong affinity between the Arab residents and the area which surrounds the city and the territory of the PA. This is especially apparent in the neighborhoods beyond the Security Fence (Kafr Aqab, which is connected to the Ramallah area, and the Shuafat refugee camp which is connected to Anata), and also in the close relationship between East Jerusalem and the Bethlehem area. The spread of the virus in Bethlehem during its early stages led to the independent decision to close the schools, made by the education system in East Jerusalem (on March 9), prior to the Israeli Education Ministry decision to close schools (on March 13), and after the PA made the decision to close its schools (on March 5).

    Civil Society Infrastructures

    The response to the Coronavirus Crisis highlights processes that have been underway in East Jerusalem for several years: The growth of civil society groups and institutions on the neighborhood and citywide levels, some of which have ties to the Israeli establishment, while some are connected to Palestinian and other bodies. In this context the following should be noted: The infrastructure created by Government Decision 3790 (in May 2018) and the five-year government plan to invest in East Jerusalem led to the creation of the urban youth movements, whose members distributed thousands of food baskets in the east  of the city, as well as to the activities of the students participating in the Albashir Program for excellence in East Jerusalem who helped thousands of East Jerusalem residents to fill out forms for the Employment Service and the National Insurance Institute to enable them to apply for financial aid after being informed that they were on unpaid leave.

    The Israeli Response

    Since early April there has been a visible effort on the part of the Israeli establishment to assume control and respond to the outbreak of the virus. This attempt has been a combined endeavor undertaken by the Ministry of Health, the National Security Council, the Municipality and Mayor Leon (who together gradually took on a central role in the management of the crisis), the community councils, the Home Front Command, the health funds, MDA, the Palestine Red Crescent Society, and hospitals in East Jerusalem and East Jerusalem civil society entities.

    Main Recommendations

    Exit Strategy

    • With respect to every decision which concerns East Jerusalem, the Palestinian area which surrounds it should also be taken into consideration, as well as the anticipated influence of the activity of the PA in various spheres (first and foremost in the sphere of education). Despite the tensions between Israel and the PA, coordination between the two is vital to maintain stability in the city and its environs.
    • It is recommended that Jews should not be permitted to visit the Temple Mount unless it is fully open to Muslim worshippers, and to coordinate reopening the site – inasmuch as it is possible – with the heads of the Waqf and the Jordanian government.

    Profiting From and Leveraging Success

    • It is important that the massive government investment and widespread government activity in East Jerusalem continue beyond the period of the virus outbreak and extend to the difficult days and crises which will likely follow in its wake.
    • It is critical that the delicate understandings and mechanisms created during the period of the Coronavirus crisis be reinforced, to help with efforts to cope with the significant challenges of shared life in the city in the future.

    Read through the complete analysis and full list of recommendations

    Full Article – Hebrew