Ramallah, West Bank – On March 12, Akram Abu Koueik, a 55-year-old father of eight, woke up at 2.30am as he does almost every weekday. He left his home near Ramallah and arrived at the Qalandia checkpoint just after 3am, hoping to beat the morning rush of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank who work in Israel.
Akram has all the required paperwork for employment in Israel and has worked as an electrician for the same Israeli company for 30 years. His workday plus commute generally takes 16 hours, but aside from the occasional long queue if he is running late, he rarely runs into issues.
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Until that morning when, like thousands of other labourers from the occupied Palestinian territories over the age of 50, he learned that he would not be allowed to cross the checkpoint.
There were already 100 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, in Israel and 30 in the West Bank, mostly concentrated in Bethlehem. The city was locked down by Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), which announced a state of emergency in the West Bank.
With older workers most at risk from the newly declared pandemic, Israel was not letting them enter.
Akram was concerned about his health amid the coronavirus pandemic, but he was also worried about how he would feed his family if he could not work for an extended period. More than anything, it was the uncertainty that most unnerved him.
“If this is just a few days or even two weeks, we can survive,” he said of his family. “But what if I’m not allowed through for months?”
Labour migrants to Israel pump roughly $330m a month into the Palestinian economy.
In his company sweatshirt and worn-out work boots, Akram waited at the checkpoint for hours alongside hundreds of others who also had not been allowed to cross. They watched as younger people passed, a few wearing medical masks.
As the queues of cars grew at the adjacent vehicle checkpoint, many began to bib their horns. By 6am, the lines were longer than usual. Some of those who had been turned away tried again – and again. Others argued or attempted to barter with the Israeli guards.
A government employee in a medical mask and gloves made her way down the lines, handing out health guidelines printed by the PA. The crumpled papers soon littered the ground. They did not say anything the workers here had not been hearing for weeks – wash your hands, do not touch your face – and they did not answer the questions that most troubled them.
As the hours passed, the sense of uncertainty at the checkpoint grew. Still, Akram waited.
“I have nowhere to go,” he said five hours after he arrived, leaning against a rail with a coffee in hand. “I’m waiting for any news [about what will happen to us].”
More questions than answers
Over the next two weeks, Akram and more than 100,000 other Palestinians who travel to Israel or to illegal settlements for work would get new answers on their fates every few days – each answer raising more questions.
On March 17, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh expanded the restrictions to cut off all movement of people between Israel and the West Bank.
Palestinians who worked in Israel and wished to continue doing so would have 72 hours to “arrange their affairs regarding a place to sleep in their workplaces in coordination with their employers”, he announced.
Israel said Palestinians working in the “essential sectors” of health, agriculture, construction and caregiving could stay for one to two months in Israel, with their employers finding them accommodation.
After another five days, Shtayyeh declared a full two-week lockdown of the West Bank, restricting all nonessential movement.
About 15 to 20 percent of employed Palestinians work in Israel or in the settlements – predominantly in construction – where the average wage of 227 Israeli shekels [about $64] per day is more than double what they would make in the West Bank, where the unemployment rate hovers at around 30 percent.
“[If close to 200,000 workers, with and without permits, rely on incomes from Israel or the settlements and they each support a family of five] that’s almost one million Palestinian individuals having their bread and butter on their table from the income generated from Israel,” explained Mounir Kleibo, the representative for the United Nations’ International Labour Organization for the occupied Palestinian territories.
Most of the labourers are from refugee camps or rural areas rather than the cities. “What this means is the poorer Palestinians will have less income and the income inequality will expand even more,” said Leila Farsakh, a political scientist at the University of Massachusetts Boston and author of Palestinian Labor Migration to Israel: Labour, Land and Occupation.
Faced with the prospect of not earning an income, tens of thousands of Palestinian workers opted to stay in Israel.
“[But] what sort of accommodation will Israel give these people?” asked Kleibo. “The Palestinians are handing all the responsibility over to the Israelis to take care of their workers. The Israelis never took care of the safety, health, or wellbeing of Palestinian workers, even during times of economic growth.”
Kleibo’s fears were soon confirmed when, within 36 hours of Shtayyeh’s announcement, he heard on Palestinian radio that workers who had crossed into Israel with plans to stay returned after seeing the conditions in which they were expected to live. Those who remained were sometimes put in bedrooms shared with more than 20 other workers – in violation of the Israeli Ministry of Health’s social distancing guidance – or expected to sleep on construction sites.
“[They are] not appropriate for human habitation,” said Kleibo. “There is no hygiene, no sanitation. God forbid someone gets the virus, it’s frightening the speed it will spread among these workers.”
With Israel’s own lockdown expanding as the number of cases there reached nearly 2,000, it changed course on March 24 and opened up some checkpoints for Palestinians to return to the West Bank. Workers flooded these spots.
But there were no Israeli health officials at the checkpoints to test the returning Palestinians for the coronavirus. Workers fear they could have caught it in Israel, and could now infect their families and neighbourhoods.
“For God’s sake, please somebody check us before we go back home,” Kleibo said a worker told him over Facebook from the checkpoint.
Shtayyeh followed the checkpoint opening with an order for all Palestinian workers remaining in Israel to return to the West Bank, citing the virus’ rapid spread and new movement restrictions in Israel. He said the returnees would be subjected to a health exam and 14-day home quarantine. The West Bank has 88 confirmed cases so far compared with more than 3,400 in Israel – although Israel has conducted far more tests – but more than 15,000 workers have now returned untested.
Dr Ramez Bwekat, a senior medical officer with the Palestinian Ministry of Health, told Al Jazeera the reversal had caught Palestinian health officials by surprise. Their top priority now is testing returning workers who show symptoms, he said. But despite supplies coming in every day from the World Health Organization (WHO), they lack sufficient kits to test all of the returning workers.
“We wish we had the ability to test all of them, but our capabilities are limited,” he said. “Those coming from Israel are now our major concern for the virus spreading. But we can only test the highly suspected cases.”
As for the Palestinians who work inside the West Bank in illegal settlements, there is nothing to stop them from entering the settlements, even though Shtayyeh stated that doing so is forbidden.
“I can see from my window right now workers in the settlement,” Kleibo said on the phone. “They’ve been there since the morning, and nobody asked them anything or checked them in. They just entered.”
A unique challenge
The Israeli government and the PA face a unique challenge in battling the coronavirus. Over the course of a 52-year Israeli military occupation that is illegal under international law, and especially since the 1993-95 Oslo Accords, the Israeli and Palestinian economies have become deeply intertwined.
“They are embedded together,” Farsakh said. “The Palestinian economy in the West Bank and the Palestinian political system in the West Bank is very much dependent on its relationship to Israel.”
Israel was an early state to implement travel restrictions, to close schools and universities and to restrict gatherings of more than 10 people.
On March 16, Netanyahu announced “emergency measures” that include the Shin Bet security service using “counterterror” technologies that cyber-track civilians suspected of carrying the virus, bypassing the Knesset in their implementation and causing alarm among privacy rights advocates. As of March 25, synagogues are shuttered, and Israelis cannot journey more than 100 metres from their homes.
The PA too has taken the coronavirus threat seriously. Abbas authorised “all necessary measures to confront the risks resulting from the coronavirus and to protect public health” in early March and quickly locked down Bethlehem, home to the majority of Palestinian coronavirus cases. Not only were schools closed across the West Bank and public gatherings banned, but the PA suspended prayers in West Bank mosques and churches, as have the authorities at the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
What Abbas did not say was how much coordination with Israel “all necessary measures” would entail.
“The infrastructure of security cooperation was key to Oslo, so you’re talking about an infrastructure that’s been in place for over 20 years,” said Farsakh. “It can be very discreet in how it is happening today, but they are tied together.“
For weeks, Israeli and PA officials have been discussing collaborative efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19. A senior Palestinian official told The Times of Israel they had established a special mechanism to discuss the virus “moment by moment”, and a joint operations room to confront COVID-19 was set up. Israel, after all, has the most overcrowded hospitals in the developed world, and the West Bank’s hospital infrastructure is much worse.
Even more alarming is the prospect of a mass COVID-19 outbreak in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, which now has nine confirmed cases. Among the most densely populated territories in the world with collapsing infrastructure after more than a dozen years under blockade, Gaza has only 70 intensive care beds for a population of almost 2 million. The first two infected patients and all those they had been in contact with were quarantined, but the seven additional cases occurred at the quarantine facility. Hamas closed border crossings with Israel and Egypt, plus all of Gaza’s mosques.
Israel and the PA, meanwhile, coordinated the lockdown of Bethlehem in early March, the restrictions on cross-checkpoint movement, the decision on long-term migrant worker stays, and the transfer of coronavirus detection kits and protective gear to the West Bank.
Bwekat also confirmed sending Palestinian coronavirus tests to Israel to verify the results and receiving the names of Palestinians who enter Israeli ports from overseas. But he said the Palestinians have had issues in coordinating with Israel on health matters in the past.
“We had a crisis before the coronavirus issue with the Israeli side about cutting access from Palestinian hospitals to Israeli hospitals, and they cut off some money and there were customs issues,” he added.
The Oslo Accords created a customs union between Israel and the PA in which goods to Palestinian territories pass through Israeli ports, and Israel collects the import taxes on those goods and transfers them to the PA. Farsakh said these customs revenues could constitute 50 to 70 percent of the PA’s revenue.
“So Israel, instead of regularly transferring them, has been using them as leverage,” Farsakh said. “For Israel, if the PA behaves well, they’ll transfer the money. If the PA does not behave well, they won’t transfer the money.”
But even if there is cooperation to combat COVID-19, the economics of the conflict has only been magnified by the virus’s onset.
“The real issue is the importance of sustaining the Palestinian economy,” Farsakh said, “because it’s not in Israel’s interest to have an economic decay in the West Bank. That would have serious political implications on the stability of the PA and on Israel. Israeli policy has always been: ‘We need to find a way to keep the Palestinian economy sustainable without costing the Israeli economy anything.'”
Yet, like all the world’s economies, the Israeli and Palestinian ones may have to suffer in taking urgent public safety measures. That is why policymakers have been so vexed by the issue of migrant workers; packing checkpoints by the thousands shoulder-to-shoulder, they are among the biggest risk factors for spreading the disease.
International aid is already the core sustainer of the Palestinian economy – ahead of migrant labour. As the economic situation worsens in the occupied Palestinian territories, Kleibo said international organisations are discussing establishing an emergency fund to help support Palestinian hourly labourers now left workless.
But, he said, “donors are busy with the virus spreading in their own countries. Nobody’s thinking of meeting the Palestinian needs right now. They have their own catastrophes to deal with.”