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Palestinian Jerusalemites Accuse Israel of Neglect, Call for Coronavirus Testing
A view of Kafr Aqab neighborhood, separated with a wall and Qalandiya checkpoint from east Jerusalem, on February 3, 2020. (Mostafa Alkharouf/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Palestinian Jerusalemites Accuse Israel of Neglect, Call for Coronavirus Testing

‘If Israel doesn’t want to do it, let the Palestinian Authority step in’

Kafr Aqab, the northernmost Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem, is crammed full with hundreds of high-rises and narrow alleyways, and, most famously, overcrowded living conditions and poor infrastructure.

Although Kafr Aqab is inside Jerusalem’s boundaries, most of it is beyond the Israeli security barrier and residents have long accused the municipality of neglecting their needs.

Now, activists are sounding the alarm bell, warning of a rapid increase in novel coronavirus infections in the neighborhood.

The local branch of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah party released a statement on Sunday night that pegged the number of COVID-19 cases in Kafr Aqab at 60, although the head of the local emergency committee, Samih Abu Ermila, disputed the figure.

“The number of cases so far stands at 16; some of them were taken to hotels in Ramallah for quarantine,” he told The Media Line.

Abu Ermila said the committee he heads was formed at the direction of the Palestinian Authority. His biggest challenge is convincing people to stay home, he said.

“I call on the people in Kafr Aqab to cooperate in implementing the preventive measures and to display greater discipline,” he said.

Raed Hamdan, media coordinator in the Kafr Aqab Municipality, which covers the part of the neighborhood under partial PA control, said people’s views on the coronavirus and on those infected posed a huge dilemma. “People in the last week were not committed to staying home and the shops were open,” he added.

Kafr Aqab falls under full Israeli control, yet the residents feel neglected, Hamdan said. “We are part of Jerusalem, and the Israelis must do their duty and take responsibility and provide coronavirus testing stations.”

“You should know that we in Kafr Aqab are obligated to pay taxes to the municipality − property tax − and we pay social security contributions [to Israel’s National Insurance Institute]. We pay everything, but we hardly get anything from them,” Hamdan said.

The Palestinian Authority says it is trying to fill the vacuum and help the residents.

“The Palestinian Preventive Medicine Department [in the PA’s Health Ministry], in cooperation with the Palestinian security services, set up a testing tent in the Qalandiya [refugee] camp [just west of Kafr Aqab],” said Hamdan.

He also said that Palestinians’ perception of those infected with COVID-19 was hindering the fight against the pandemic.

“Our culture does not accept disease, as if one should be ashamed to say one is sick. People have a problem with getting themselves tested; there is a very small number trying to evade examination and trying not to go through the testing tent,” Hamdan said.

According to the Israeli Health Ministry, dozens of cases of the virus have been recorded in east Jerusalem, where many large families live in densely populated neighborhoods and tight living quarters.

About 18,500 people live in Kafr Aqab; around half of them carry blue Israeli identification cards, giving them permanent residency in the city and easy access to Israel. The other half hold green Palestinian Authority IDs.

The Kafr Aqab Municipality provides services not only to those living under its jurisdiction but also to Palestinians with Israeli identification cards, according to officials in the local body.

There is virtually no security apparatus in the neighborhood, meaning there is much crime. Just weeks ago, two rival families clashed over control of coveted territory.

Activist Munir Zughayer, who leads a committee that frequently complains to the Jerusalem Municipality about the lack of attention paid to Kafr Aqab, expressed concern about the dearth of law enforcement in the neighborhood.

Zughayer turned to an Israeli court to compel the Israeli government to place a coronavirus test station near the neighborhood.

Adalah − The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel confirmed this, releasing a statement saying: Following Adalah’s Supreme Court petition, Israel to open coronavirus testing centers in East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the separation wall.”

Meanwhile, Kafr Aqab officials said they were particularly concerned that the monthlong Ramadan holiday, with its sunrise-to-sunset fasts that are followed by extravagant evening meals, could exacerbate the spread of the contagion.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum official told The Media Line by email that the city had opened testing stations in two east Jerusalem locations: one near Kalandia Checkpoint, to serve the residents of Kafr Aqab, and the other in the Shu’fat refugee camp.

Muhannad Shehadeh, head of the Committee to Combat the Corona Epidemic and a social psychology graduate of Bethlehem University, told The Media Line that his group, which is composed of volunteers, was working hard to ensure Kafr Aqab was disinfected.

Even though he lives in the area under the control of the PA, he said they helped the entire neighborhood.

“There are psychological and social specialists, who provide psychological support services to all the families, whether they are in quarantine or not. Our team responds to calls from the West Bank, including this area.”

Shehadeh’s main role is to educate people on how to stem the spread of the deadly virus.

“What we need most is for people to be convinced that this virus is rapidly spreading, that this has to do with socializing, and that the only way to combat this epidemic is to commit to staying at home. There is no room for social gatherings,” he said.

He encourages people to use technology. “People should use social media to stay in touch; we use it to educate them and guide them through these difficult times,” Shehadeh said.

Ramadan starts on Friday and it is traditionally a time for large gatherings and families to visit. But Shehadeh is urging people to abandon many social norms this year.

“I know it’s hard but let’s not visit each other this Ramadan. We must try as much as possible to communicate our message to people that this disease is an epidemic and we must adhere to staying in our homes.”

Hamdan, Zughayer and Abu Ermila all agree that Israel must shoulder its responsibility toward the neighborhood in order to combat the coronavirus.

“If Israel doesn’t want to do it, then let the Palestinian Authority come and do it. It is ready,” Hamdan said.

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