‘If we can overcome coronavirus, we can overcome the occupation’

Palestinians walk outside the closed Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem (Wisam Hashlamoun - Flash90)

Suha Arraf

+972 Magazine  /  March 26, 2020

Thousands of volunteers and donations to support locked-down Bethlehem are reviving a sense of Palestinian solidarity reminiscent of the First Intifada.

The outbreak of the novel coronavirus has produced two winners: Benjamin Netanyahu, who has used the crisis to delay his trial on corruption charges; and the Palestinian Authority, which has regained the trust of the Palestinian public through its response to the pandemic. Suddenly, it seems as if the “Deal of the Century” was announced a century ago.

The Palestinian struggle against the coronavirus is centered around Bethlehem, where the first cases in the occupied West Bank emerged. On March 5, seven hotel employees contracted the virus from tourists staying at the Angel Hotel. Three weeks later, there are 64 reported cases in the West Bank (compared with over 2,660 in Israel), about 40 of those in Bethlehem. One elderly Palestinian woman died from the virus on Wednesday.

Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh realized early on that the PA did not have the infrastructure — particularly for hospitals and budgets — to deal with the virus. As such, Shtayyeh called for an immediate lockdown of the city, isolated the infected and those who had come into contact with the hotel, and declared a state of emergency. Bethlehem Governor Kamel Hamid also recruited the municipality to strengthen these measures.

The most encouraging response, however, came from the Palestinian public. Bethlehem’s residents organized en masse in a manner reminiscent of the popular committees that operated during the First Intifada. An emergency committee was formed in the city with over 3,000 volunteers — youth scouts, psychologists, doctors, academics, social and political activists, and other concerned residents. Palestinian women also returned to the center stage of public life, as they had during the First Intifada.

“We are treating the coronavirus as an enemy more dangerous than the Israeli occupation,” says Dr. Kifah Manasraa lecturer on criminology at Bethlehem University and a practicing psychologist. “You cannot see it. It’s not an armed Israeli soldier standing in front of you.”

‘We are taking care of each other’ 

Manasra speaks about a rejuvenated spirit in Bethlehem. “People’s motivation is skyrocketing,” she says. “Our self-confidence has been restored along with the faith in ourselves that we can pull through.”

“This is the first time we feel we are in the same boat as our political leadership,” Manasra continues. “The first time we can decide when to impose a curfew and when to lift it. It’s not the Israelis controlling us — we are controlling ourselves, in our own city, our fates. If we can overcome the coronavirus, we can overcome the occupation too.”

Lucy Thaljiyeh, a city council member and a feminist political activist, joined the emergency committee and the aid committee, “Isnad.” She says that soon after the first cases were discovered, an emergency meeting was held at the municipality.

“We immediately reached a decision to disinfect central locations in the city: the Church of the Nativity and its plaza, bus stops, markets, mosques, churches, and hotels,” says Thalijieh, “We haven’t left out a single street or alleyway in the Bethlehem district (which includes Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, the Dheisheh Refugee Camp, Aida, and 40 other villages).”

“We started with the most basic disinfectant we had,” continues Thaljieh. “We collected garbage. We gave sanitary workers an expedited course on how to disinfect and safeguard themselves with masks, protective suits, and disinfectant. It’s amazing how fast everyone came together.”

One of the volunteers is Rawan Zghairi, a 36-year-old social and political activist from Dheisheh, who coordinates with Palestinian security forces and is the only female member from the camp on the aid committee.

“I’ve been a volunteer my whole life,” says Zghairi. “All the people in the camp are now volunteering. You should see how everyone has risen to the occasion. We cleaned the camp, disinfected it, and made a list of vulnerable families, the elderly, those who are ill, and those in quarantine. We provided them with food and medicine for the elderly. Suddenly the value of life has increased. We are fighting to live; human beings have become central again.”

Mohammad al-Masri, 42, another resident of the Dheisheh refugee camp, is the head of the District Aid Committee. He explained that Isnad is one of five committees operating under the Emergency Committee, together with committees on medicine, security, quarantine, and emotional support. Each one has a local team in each village, city, and refugee camp, and they were all formed within a few days.

“Our challenge is how to turn the panic and fear into something positive and effective — not to give up and say ‘this is our fate,’” explains al-Masri.

One of the things that galvanized Palestinians so quickly was the threat of Israel taking control of the city’s response. On the same day the first cases tested positive in Bethlehem and were re-confirmed in Israel, “the governor received a phone call from the Israelis. They told him that the army would come in and impose a curfew,” recounts al-Masri. “That made us feel greater responsibility. We do not want the Israeli army in our city making decisions for us.”

Thalijiyeh says the fact that the Bethlehem governor delegated responsibilities to various committees made everyone feel accountable. “The collective responsibility gave residents a feeling of commitment, that they are all responsible for what happens,” she explains. “the determination was amazing. The hotels transformed into alternative hospitals. The bakeries spread the word on Facebook, TV, and other media that they would be giving out free bread. Signs were put up on bakery storefronts that those who cannot pay will get free bread. Fishmongers did the same.”

The volunteer work is not just happening in Bethlehem, though. “We received two truckloads of vegetables from Qalqilyah, known for its agriculture,” says Thalijiyeh. “They also donated rice, pasta, oil, flour, and anything they could think of. Other districts, cities, and villages joined the initiative. We received a lot of donations from Hebron — food, disinfectant, masks, suits. Al-Zubeideh (near Jenin in the northern West Bank) did the same.”

Donations from across the West Bank also reached the aid committee. “We concentrated it all in the school in Bethlehem,” Thalijiyeh says. “Volunteers unpacked and distributed the equipment… Security forces are doing this holy work with us, and the medical teams are working around the clock. We have an army of volunteers and activists on the ground in every city and camp in the district. They received the lists of families in need in their city or camp and went around distributing. The municipality became a situation room, operating 24 hours a day in cooperation with the central committee.

“It is very moving and it provides a lot of strength to go on,” adds Thalijiyeh. “The solidarity between people has returned, the solidarity we had during the First Intifada which somehow disappeared in the Second Intifada. We are together once again, trapped; we are taking care of each other.”

‘There is something about hope that is contagious’ 

Al-Masri reiterates what Thalijiyeh says. “We have not received a single dollar from abroad,” he says. “We are enlisting the help of our fellow Palestinians. We even received a package of disinfectant, medicine, and vitamins from Palestinians in Israel. What’s amazing is everything we got was Palestinian-made. From the milk to the oil to the vegetables – all locally produced.”

“It gave us hope here in Bethlehem,” reflects al-Masri, “because we felt very alone at the start. There is something about hope that is contagious. After you see all the support and assistance, you cannot give up. You have to continue and fight on.”

What al-Massi found especially moving was that some of the donations even came from tiny villages, such as the Tubas area — “three villages that barely make up 3,000 people altogether, and who live under the cruelty of occupation,” he points out. “They understand what sumud (steadfastness) is. They gave us more hope than anyone else. We are motivated by the will to live. If once it was good to die for your country, now it is good to live for it.”

Like many others, the experience of the last few weeks has brought back memories of the First Intifada for Dr. Manasra. “At the time, I was active in the popular committees and demonstrations against the occupation, and I even suffered injuries from shrapnel that hit my shoulder,” she says. “During the Second Intifada, I was treating mental health patients. I was always in the line of fire. That’s why when I heard about the coronavirus, the very next day I started to think about how I could apply my knowledge. I turned to a few colleagues, psychologists, and suggested we start a hotline for emotional support.”

The response was huge. Three days after the outbreak, the group launched a hotline operated by 15 specialists. “The first call was from a guy who called because his wife was panicking and he did not know how to deal with it,” says Manasra. “I treat 10 people every day. Most are suffering from post-trauma, people who already went through difficult things — Israeli prisons, intifadas. Others are dealing with fear and panic. Sometimes a few phone calls are enough.”

Manasra adds, “What helped to alleviate the panic is how the leadership operated on the streets. We had clear information to provide callers and that is very reassuring. Because they understand what is going on. In a time of uncertainty, there has to be something certain.”

Thalijiyeh says that one of the problems is the shortage of doctors in the city. “There are 30 available doctors in all of Bethlehem; the rest are busy working in the hospitals,” she says. “Doctors came from other parts of the West Bank, and the Jacir Hotel hosted them for free.” Another problem was a major shortage of masks and protective suits. “Within days they almost ran out in the West Bank, and then Hebron opened a new factory to manufacture masks and protective suits. It all happened at a remarkably fast pace.”

The organizing is transcending political party lines, says Zghairi; “No one is talking right now about Fatah or Hamas, Muslim or Christian — everyone is in this together.” Interestingly, it has also changed people’s relationship to the Palestinian security forces — an institution that has long been criticized for authoritarian practices and human rights abuses, and which works in coordination with the Israeli military.

“Before we were cursing them and complaining they do nothing,” she says. “Now we are more appreciative. From now on I won’t let anyone say anything bad about the security forces, who are endangering themselves for us, out on the streets in the cold weather and rain, to combat the virus while we are safe at home.”

Zghairi says activists are going to checkpoints set up by the police in the city to pick up bags of food for people in quarantine, and the police are also distributing them to people’s homes. Volunteers and even nearby residents are handing out food and drinks to the police every night as well.

In addition to her other activities, Dr. Manasra is active in Hirak (Movement), an organization that combats violence against women. “We decided that this time we would do something nice for the security forces,” she says. “We bought flowers and cards, walked around the intersections and checkpoints where they were stationed, and gave each one a flower and a card to show our appreciation. Some of them were moved to tears. They really appreciated our small gesture.”

“Bethlehem has turned into a utopian city,” says al-Masri. “Not a single case of theft has been recorded in the city since the coronavirus outbreak.”

‘The soldiers wanted to show who is boss’ 

Many Palestinians have filled their Facebook pages with posts of national pride and appreciation for how the leadership has been handling the coronavirus outbreak. Groups like “Corona News in Palestine” have been formed, where people photograph the volunteer work, publish information, and request help.

Among other things, users discussed the news that Netanyahu had instructed the Shin Bet to track infected patients in Israel using surveillance technology. Many responded with ridicule that Israel is using its security forces against their own citizens, while Palestinian security forces are helping their people.

Al-Masri was personally impacted by both the First and Second Intifadas. During the first, he was 16 years old and spent six months in prison. During the second, he was put under administrative detention for half a year.

Like others, he also draws many links between how Palestinians were organizing three decades ago and how they are responding to the virus today. “The camaraderie and support between residents are really similar to the First Intifada, when there was a curfew and closure. The same is true now. Then, during the curfew, people stood in their windows and talked to one another. Now they are talking on the phone, on Whatsapp, and through cameras. We have advanced.”

Manasra sees the way Palestinians are coping as a very hopeful sign. “There is poetic justice,” she says. “We have a golden opportunity to rebuild ourselves far away from the politicians. They weren’t in the picture at all. Those leading the struggle are professionals and specialists, each in their respective fields. Suddenly you see faces on TV you never saw before — amazing professionals, women and men — and you realize how capable we are and how powerful we can be.”

Al-Masri claims Israelis want to break the high morale and renewed confidence Palestinians have built. “Yesterday [last Wednesday] soldiers entered Dheisheh,” he says. “They wanted to make their presence felt and show who is boss.” The soldiers used bulldozers to move checkpoints Palestinian police had set up to stem the spread of the virus between areas of the Bethlehem district.

Al-Masri says the Israeli soldiers threw stun grenades into the home of the nephew of Palestinian government spokesperson, Ibrahim Melcham. “They arrested his nephew and two more youths from the camp right in front of the Palestinian police and security forces who were stationed at the temporary checkpoints. What is this, if not an attempt to humiliate us and send the message: Do what you want, but we are the ones that control you; we will come in whenever we please, make arrests, and impose closures.”

According to al-Masri, the purpose of the Israeli incursion is simple: “They wanted our security forces to lose their dignity and the appreciation they felt from the people. Now the coronavirus has shown Palestinians how weak the occupation is, and how weak Israel is in the face of it… They won’t succeed in breaking us or our faith in each other, and they will not be able to steal or squash our hope.”

Suha Arraf is a director, screenwriter and producer; she writes about Arab society, Palestinian culture, and feminism.