Jerusalem’s Palestinians are Fighting Coronavirus – and Much More – on Their Own
Palestinian Arabs in Jerusalem come in fourth place within the Israeli pecking order. First place goes to Ashkenazi Jews, followed by Sephardim and Arab citizens of Israel. Then maybe there is a place for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
The Trump Administration is not helping either. The latest human rights report by the US State Department refers to these 350,000 residents of the holy city as “non-Israeli residents” or “Arab residents.”
The Palestinian Authority government is denied any leadership role over Jerusalemites. Any support from, or connection with, Ramallah is deemed a sort of crime, and its perpetrators are called before Israeli security authorities. Activities funded or coordinated with the Ramallah-based government are closed down.
This situation has left Palestinians in Jerusalem on their own – political orphans, with no opportunity to connect to any leadership. It has forced them to look for home-grown solutions to their daily problems.
The coronavirus crisis has brought home this isolation. It has forced Palestinians to think on their own about ways to protect themselves and spread messages of awareness.
One such effort is the Jerusalem Alliance, a consortium of 36 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that took upon themselves a widespread effort to disinfect public spaces and initiate awareness campaigns through digital and social media.
Being home to Islam’s third-holiest site has meant that these initiatives need to address the conflict between wanting to pray at Al Aqsa and not wanting to spread the virus. Those behind them convinced the Waqf, which is responsible for the holy site, to ban all indoor prayers and make sure that those wishing to pray outdoors should apply social-distancing directives.
Ahmad Budeiri, coordinator of this effort, told me the idea was not political and that all awareness activities were being conducted in cooperation with the World Health Organization and reputable experts.
Despite this claim, Israeli police rounded up 10 Palestinians involved in a disinfection campaign, and later released eight on condition that they stay at home.
Palestinians in Jerusalem have three important assets. The city is home to many NGOs. Lots of young people are willing to volunteer their time and efforts. And the absence of an external leadership means they have free reign to be masters of their own destiny.
Naturally, the challenges in Jerusalem go much farther than simply overseeing social-distancing during times of prayer, or producing awareness campaigns. They require a holistic approach that includes efforts in housing, work, commerce, transportation, tourism and all issues relating to life in a city where one-third of the population is politically disenfranchised.
If city life is to be reasonable, the area requiring immediate attention is housing.
Zoning regulations discriminate against Palestinians because the Israelis continue to drag their feet with Arab neighborhoods. There are homes built without a license out of necessity. This needs to be addressed in a strategic way, without brutal home demolitions.
The economic disparities between East and West Jerusalem also reflect the bias that the City Council’s 31 members have toward Jewish communities.
Some would argue that Palestinians have forfeited this right by not participating in municipal elections. This is a simplistic view that fails to take into consideration all the external pressures and sensitivities that the city engenders for Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.
Human Rights Watch produced a major study in 2019 that dealt with Palestinians being denied fundamental political rights.
The report said the “Israeli army has deprived generations of Palestinians in the West Bank of their basic civil rights. The law of occupation grants an occupier wide authority to restrict rights, but also imposes key limitations, including the requirement to facilitate public life for the occupied population. Israel’s indefinite suspension of Palestinian civil rights has crippled the ability of Palestinians to have a more normal public [and] political life.”
Although Palestinians and the international community consider Jerusalem to be occupied territory, Israel does not. Human Rights Watch was talking about Palestinians living under military rule, meaning in all occupied territories other than East Jerusalem. But the same can be said about Palestinians in Jerusalem. They live under Israeli civilian rule but are deprived of their political rights.
East Jerusalem and its residents need fundamental and structural changes that can help support Palestinian efforts to remain in the city with a sustainable presence. The fact that local, mostly young Jerusalemites are using basic community organizing techniques is a powerful sign of their ability to dictate some important changes in the way the city will be administered in the future.