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With coronavirus hitting every country in the Middle East, Palestine’s situation remains unique

With the coronavirus hitting every country in the Middle East, Palestine’s situation remains unique.

Not only are Palestinians having to resist occupation, siege and displacement, they also have limited resources and control in the battle against the pandemic.

Palestine currently has 273 cases of coronavirus. Two have died of the deadly disease and 58 have recovered. With Palestinians prevented from reaching each other under restrictions imposed by an occupying power, providing relief under the coronavirus pandemic becomes hard for state and non-state actors alike.

So far, cases in the occupied West Bank and Gaza seem to be under control compared to inside Israel, but aid workers and health ministries are not allowing themselves to get too comfortable, because they know the tide can change at any given moment.

Emergency response

So far, the Palestine Red Crescent (PRCS) is the only group that is able to provide aid for Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and in diaspora communities mainly across Syria and Lebanon.

The PRCS has more than 5,000 active volunteers across different areas and each volunteer has been trained in different areas of medical relief and crisis management.

“Our strength is in our volunteers and branches. We are available in almost all local communities and our programme is to build the capacity and reinforce resilience of local communities,” Erab Fouqha, spokeswoman for PRCS, told The New Arab.

“Our volunteers are trained on different subjects. Some are trained in public health, public health in emergencies, first aid, dealing with and planning emergencies, psychosocial assistance and many more,” she added.

As the PRCS’ auxiliary role is to support public authorities, it is supporting operations to fight the spread of coronavirus.

Mental health

“One of the main issues we face in Palestine is a mental health crisis, so psychosocial support is an important aspect of what we do,” Erab explained.

In September, the Palestinian Ministry of Health published a report saying suicide cases have increased by 14 percent in the space of just one year, with depression being one of the driving factors behind the sharp rise.

Despite a cultural stigma, more people are turning to the PRCS for mental health support during the crisis as taboos on mental health loosen. They recently launched a special hotline for psychosocial support for Palestinians.

“Last week alone, we received 150 calls from males and females regarding mental health. Palestinian society is more recently becoming more open about mental health and we need to accommodate,” Erab explained.

West Bank

Israel began its illegal occupation of the West Bank in a move that was never recognised by the international community.

The Oslo agreement of 1995 divided the occupied West Bank into three: Area A, Area B and Area C.

In Area C regions, such as the Jordan Valley, Israel has full military and administrative control, leaving the Palestinian Authority unable to provide relief. In Areas A and B, Palestinian aid workers are still at risk of being prevented access by occupying forces.

The PRCS are able to provide medical aid to the West Bank and make sure food and other essential necessities are delivered to those in need.

“Because of the response to the pandemic, many have lost their jobs, leaving thousands of families at risk of starvation. We are able to deliver food packages to them,” Erab said.

Because of the way the occupied West Bank has been divided, there are restrictions in the PRCS’ operations in Jerusalem.

“We’re allowed to provide ambulance services in Jerusalem and provide service there and we have many challenges and restrictions imposed by Israelis,” she added.

In general, aid workers are continuously targeted by Israeli forces and settlers across the West Bank.

Earlier this month, occupying Israeli forces seized food and medical trucks from local aid workers and proceeded to beat and arrest them.

Palestinians in the diaspora

So far, there are no cases of coronavirus in any of the refugee camps that the PRCS is responsible for, according to Erab.

“Currently, we are raising awareness in the diaspora camps. Thankfully no cases in the refugee camps, but if it happens, it will be very hard on PRCS because we are the main health providers,” she said.

There are no overt laws denying Palestinian citizens equal access to healthcare. However, Palestinian citizens of Israel were heavily disadvantaged in the early testing of coronavirus, with many complaining that nearly all coronavirus tests were taking place in Israel’s Jewish areas, neglecting Arab towns and villages.

Arab areas, such as Jaffa have been subjected to heightened police brutality as Israeli police use coronavirus rules as an excuse to disproportionately attack Palestinians.

Stranded workers from the occupied West Bank are being forced to sleep on the floors of their workplaces, or in overcrowded quarantine centres, leaving them under yet more risk of coronavirus.

“Palestinians inside Israel, whether Arab citizens of Israel or labourers migrating from the West Bank get no help from us because Israel is not our geographical scope,” Erab explained.

However, families of those stranded get help from the PRCS, with Qatanaa being one example. Qatanaa is a village in East Jerusalem within Area C but is outside of the separation barrier, which means it is not under Israel’s administrative control and the PRCS are fully able to function there.

“Many workers in Qatanaa have to travel to Israel for their jobs, meaning workers are either stranded or are currently unemployed,” Erab said.

“Last week alone, we delivered 70 food packages to Qatanaa families whose livelihoods have stopped,” she said.

The PRCS also delivered 50 food parcels to the village of Biddu, located north west of East Jerusalem.

Gaza

Nearly two million Gazans have been under an Israeli siege since 2007, with extremely limited access to necessities such as healthcare, water and food. Currently, 13 Gazans have tested positive for coronavirus.

Last week, Mohammed Abu Salmiya, head of Gaza’s emergency committee, expressed hope that matters in Gaza could gradually go back to normal if the spread of coronavirus in the besieged enclave continues at a slow rate.

“However, the next few weeks will be very decisive. The tide can turn any minute, which will need a completely different response,” he warned.

“In Gaza, the challenges are always the same because it’s already hard to get medical supplies to Gaza,” Erab said.

“Our medical capacities are already not enough in Gaza and it’s already hard to send proper protection to our volunteers inside the territory because of the blockade,” she added.

She hoped that Israel may actually provide some leeway to the PRCS to deliver much needed aid to Gaza in alleviating the coronavirus pandemic.

“This pandemic has no borders and it’s affecting everyone and has brought everyone together to beat it. I’m hoping Israel will take this into consideration and allow us to send relief, equipment and proper PPE to protect our staff because it is in no one’s interest to let coronavirus spiral out of control in Gaza,” she explained.

Source: The New Arab.

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