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Hebron: Division Between Palestinian, Israeli Control Speeding Spread of COVID-19, Analysts Say

Lockdown of the city deals a big blow to the PA economy

Hebron has become the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Palestinian territories, accounting for 80% of the more than 5,800 cases of the illness, amid tensions between the Palestinian Authority and the tribes and families of the West Bank city over the latter’s adherence to the lockdown and other preventive measures.

Mayor Tayseer Abu Sneineh explained to The Media Line that under the Hebron Protocol that the PLO signed with Israel in 1997, the city was divided into two zones: Area H1 under Palestinian control, and Area H2 under Israeli control.

“This agreement resulted in the oppression of the city and its people and divided it into two cities, and since H2 is under Israel’s control and the latter neglects this area and the Arab citizens there, it has become a haven for all sorts of outlaws,” he said.

Panoramic view of the city of Hebron, July 2020. (Noor Khatib)

Abu Sneineh explained that while the PA had placed H1 and all other Palestinian cities under lockdown to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, H2 was open, and the people there were going about their lives as usual.

“Not to mention that the PA has lost some of its authority in the Palestinian territories because of a variety of political circumstances, because of division [between the Fatah-dominated West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip] and other political disputes. Therefore it couldn’t impose and implement its orders and instructions with the people without first coordinating them with the resident families and tribes, given the major role of the latter in the city of Hebron,” Abu Sneineh said.

This agreement resulted in the oppression of the city and its people and divided it into two cities, and since H2 is under Israel’s control and the latter neglects this area and the Arab citizens there, it has become a haven for all sorts of outlaws

By the time the PA was able to reach an agreement with the tribes, the outbreak had spread out of control, he said. “In the final analysis, we need to find ways to cope with the epidemic, and when we decide to impose a full closure, we need to compensate the citizens, but we can’t pay their salaries, and we don’t have the financial resources to help the people and support them financially.”

Abu Sneineh warned that a variety of actors − political parties and national powers, in addition to Jewish organizations − were taking advantage of the deteriorating epidemiological situation to incite against the PA, promote their own agendas and highlight the failure of the PA and its lack of capabilities.

“These parties don’t really understand the dangers and the seriousness of the situation, when great powers such as the US, with its vast resources, have been unable to limit the spread of the virus,” he said.

About 800 Jewish settlers live among 215,000 Palestinians in Hebron. At the center of the Old City is the traditional burial place of Abraham, which Palestinians call the Ibrahimi Mosque, and Jews and Christians, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Hebron, and the religious site, in particular, has long been a flashpoint for Israeli-Palestinian violence.

In February 1994, during Ramadan – a month of fasting to honor the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, according to Islamic belief, a Jewish settler gunned down 29 Muslims inside the mosque as they prayed. After that, Israel divided the holy site into two areas — half mosque and half synagogue – with separate entrances.

A formal arrangement to share the site was reached in 1997, with Jews and Muslims each getting sole access to the site on their religious holidays, and the city was divided into two areas: H1 and H2.

The city of Hebron is the capital of the PA’s Hebron Governorate. The governor of Hebron, Jabreen al-Bakri, announced on June 27 a full closure of the area, which has been extended until now, isolating it from the other 15 Palestinian governorates, and the cancelation of weddings and all other social events. Only trucks and other commercial vehicles are allowed entry.

Hebron, West Bank, under coronavirus closure, July 2020. (Noor Khatib)

Bakri said in a press statement that the procedures would be tightened, warning that those who violated the decisions would be held accountable by traffic committees, which would monitor public and private movement to ensure compliance with the necessary safeguards and measures announced by the PA Health Ministry.

Clan and tribe are particularly strong in the Hebron community, serving modern political functions as well as their traditional roles in social reform and conflict intervention. Although the tribal role declined during the 1970s and 1980s, it was never absent from the Hebron scene.

From the period of Ottoman rule until now, successive rulers have recognized the important role and influence of the tribes and have tried to build relationships with them. This includes also the local Jewish community, whose rabbis have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to build relationships with Palestinian tribal leaders. After the Palestinian Authority was established through the Oslo Accords, it too tried to coopt the tribes and clans by offering them privileges, but these bodies remain independent and more connected to political factions than to the PA, itself.

Muhannad al-Ja’bari, a Fatah member representing central Hebron and responsible for Hebron’s Old City, told The Media Line that “the coronavirus pandemic showed the inability of the PA to operate in these areas [H2], and that’s when the role of Fatah and the tribes came into play.”

All efforts to control the virus in Hebron and especially in H2 had failed because Israelis and settlers were there, he said. “People were living a normal life; they had weddings and all kind of social events, and the tribes didn’t really corporate with the PA until last week, after the virus had spread widely,” he added.

He added that before the involvement of the tribes, the situation was catastrophic, and it had to do with the inability of the PA to fully control these areas, and because families and tribes underestimated the danger of the virus, “where some of them didn’t believe that the pandemic existed in the first place.”

Ja’bari said that since the tribes decided to corporate with the Palestinian leadership, they had distributed instructions telling their families to observe the preventive measures and the closure. “Therefore, [the virus in] these areas had started to come under control, not because of the PA’s orders, but because of their tribes’ orders.”

He pointed out that because Palestinian businesses in H1 were all closed, while those next door in H2 were all open, the merchants in the area under PA control felt they had been done an injustice.

Hebron, West Bank, July 2020. The closure of businesses in Hebron has dealt a major blow to the economy. (Noor Khatib)

“This has created a reaction among the people, especially after merchants who felt oppressed, incited against the PA and its measures. Thereafter, people went to the streets in large numbers during Eid [al-Fitr, the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan and which this year fell on May 24], for instance. In the final analysis, we can’t control the entire city. Realistically, all of our measures will remain limited,” Ja’bari said.

People were living a normal life; they had weddings and all kind of social events, and the tribes didn’t really corporate with the PA until last week, after the virus had spread widely

On July 5, PA President Mahmoud Abbas extended the state of emergency in the West Bank by 30 days, amid a five-day lockdown declared on July 3 that was subsequently extended by another five days, due to the spiraling number of new coronavirus cases.

The only exceptions during the lockdown are for pharmacies and grocery stores. Palestinians who cross into Israel for work will not be allowed back for the time being.

Osama Amr, the head of the Palestinian Businessmen Association, is from Hebron. He told The Media Line most of the Palestinian industrial economy was generated in two cities: Hebron and Nablus.

“Hebron is one of the large Palestinian cities that export many industrial products to Israel and elsewhere, with the majority of the exports coming from Hebron,” he said.

The complete closure of the city was doing tremendous damage to the Palestinian economy, “and that’s why we saw the citizens of Hebron protesting against stopping the manufacturing. They didn’t protest against the cancelation of weddings and social events, but rather against halting the production lines,” he said.

He added that the production movement must not be closed, “The strategy of full closure of all Palestinian cities was negative; I believe they should have closed specific sectors and kept essential sectors working. There must be a balance between the economy and public health,” Amr said.

Rami al-Natshe, a retail merchant from Hebron, told The Media Line that his business was affected badly by the repeated closures, particularly because nearby areas remained open: “Other merchants were able to open in some areas, so they took all my clients and livelihood.”

Al-Natshe added that with every additional day of closure, the traders accumulate greater losses.

Hebron, West Bank, July 2020. With every additional day of closure, the traders accumulate greater losses. (Noor Khatib)

He said that traffic in the market has been greatly affected, particularly with the spread of news connecting the virus to the city. “It is as if the city of Hebron was targeted for a reason. Everyone started saying that the city had become the epicenter of the viral outbreak, and people were very scared.”

Al-Natsheh continued: “Even supermarkets that are open have lost business due to the decrease in the movement of people.”