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Palestine: Even Covid-19 Cannot Stop Israeli Occupation


Ibtisam Azem

Translated from the Arabic by Sinan Antoon
Art by Suha Traboulsi


Physical assaults with weapons, tasers, axes, hammers, metal bars, and rocks against unarmed civilians. Covid-infected individuals spitting, verbal assaults, torching cars, trespassing, uprooting olive trees, and unleashing cows to graze on crops . . . This is the nightmarish daily reality for Palestinians who suffer the assaults of Israeli settlers under the protective watch of the Israeli army. Scores of similar assaults used to take place every year, but they have increased by 78 percent after Covid-19 according to the United Nations and human rights organizations, including Israeli ones, even after Israel implemented strict lockdown and social distancing on both sides of the Green Line.

On April 16, two Palestinian brothers, ’Issa and Musa Qatash, were taking a walk in their family plots near the village of Jibya. They were attacked by settlers so severely that they had to be hospitalized. This is how ’Issa Qatash described the horror he went through in a statement he gave to B’Tselem:

I could barely protect my head and face from the blows. Someone hit me hard on the mouth and I could feel my front teeth break. Blood started trickling into my mouth and down my face. I shouted and cried out: “For God’s sake, what did I do to you? Do you have no mercy? You’re killing me. Have mercy.” But none of them listened. At some point, I collapsed. I had no strength left. Then they tied my hands behind my back with some rope. The armed settler pointed his gun at my head and cocked it, as if he was going to shoot me in the head.

For me, and so many others, these are not mere narratives and figures. The lived reality of Palestinians is that their bodies and being are never safe. They are always potential targets. I remember my mother’s voice a few years ago on the phone saying, “Everything will be fine. We were lucky. The settlers damaged the car, but your aunt’s husband will fix it. We are fine.” Settlers had stopped the car in the middle of the road telling my relatives to go back and take another route to return to our hometown of al-Tayibe. When my aunt’s husband refused, they beat him up and broke the car windows. The soldiers just stood there and just shrugged when my aunt’s husband asked them for help.


More than 600,000 Jewish Israeli settlers live in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the occupied Syrian Golan and enjoy economic and security privileges. While they are described as being civilians, their presence is, in fact, an extension of the long arm of Israeli occupation and its policies. In addition to confiscating Palestinian lands to build settlements, the settlements themselves play a role in denying Palestinians access to their own lands, especially farmers. There are additional difficulties faced by Palestinians in urban centers, such as Jerusalem and Hebron.

I know Hebron; a beautiful city with distinctive architecture and old stone buildings. Whenever I read or hear its name I remember my last visit a few years ago. I recall the black nets stretching across the tops of buildings in the old city. The Palestinian inhabitants put them up there to ward off the garbage the Israeli settlers who occupied their homes would throw every day. How can I cast away that smell?


“Thus, electronic surveillance that is normally used to track Palestinians for the purpose of ‘fighting terrorism’ will be used to fight Covid-19 and would trace those infected and whoever is in contact with them without their consent. While the authorities claim that this step will help control the virus, many believe that it is meant to deflect attention from systemic problems, including insufficient testing.”


Life is returning to normal in Israel and the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967, but Palestinians have discovered that even the spread of Covid-19 could not provide a respite from the occupation. On the contrary. Israel has intensified its oppressive practices against Palestinians in every facet of their lives, from land confiscation, detention of children, labor exploitation, uprooting trees, house demolitions, and much more.

It is worth noting that the distinction between “normal” life and “emergency” when it comes to Palestinians in Israel, whether citizens or those living in the Occupied Territories, is illusory. The emergency declared by Israel in the time of Covid-19, which is a measure taken by many if not all states, comes on top of a continuing state of emergency declared shortly after the Nakba in 1948, when Israel invaded the majority of historic Palestine, and is renewed annually. Emergency laws that were put in place to control Palestinians and their lands, besiege and expel them, are in effect today, along with many other discriminatory laws against Palestinians.

But even the state of emergency declared by Netanyahu on March 19 and the emergency Israeli cabinet formed on April 20 used Covid-19 as a pretext to further increase economic, political, and security control. Israel tapped the Shin Bet, the Israel Security Agency, to combat Covid-19.

Thus, electronic surveillance that is normally used to track Palestinians for the purpose of “fighting terrorism” will be used to fight Covid-19 and would trace those infected and whoever is in contact with them without their consent. While the authorities claim that this step will help control the virus, many believe that it is meant to deflect attention from systemic problems, including insufficient testing. A problematic surveillance system that violates human rights was being touted as a saver of human life. Despite the fact that the number of infections has been limited, the Netanyahu government is preparing a draft law that would allow the Shin Bet to continue its surveillance after it faced opposition from the Supreme Court.

The emergency cabinet formed after an agreement between Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud) and Benny Gantz (Blue and White) announced an ambiguous plan to fight Covid-19 and deal with its socio-economic consequences. However, the most significant point was the intention to annex Palestinian territories with American blessing, in accordance with Jared Kushner’s plan. It is estimated that 30 percent of Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 will be officially annexed after the government brings legislation to the cabinet or Knesset on July 1.

The United Nations and many western countries have objected to this step and called it “a violation of international law and detrimental to the two-state solution.” But it seems that the international community’s maximum response is words. In the meantime, with the support of the United States, Israel can do whatever it pleases with Palestinian lives and lands.


UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for a worldwide ceasefire to unify efforts to fight Covid-19. But Israel continued to kill and maim Palestinians, including children, even after the spread of Covid-19. The UN, as well as other human rights organizations, indicated that since March, the Israeli army killed at least eight Palestinians and wounded fifty-two more, including children, which brings the number of Palestinian civilians killed by Israeli occcupation forces from the beginning of the year to twenty-two. Seventeen-year-old Zaid Qaisiya was killed when a bullet entered his head at 6 AM on May 13. According to the Geneva-based Defense of Children International, preliminary investigations conducted by local staff indicate that it was premeditated and amounts to a war crime. Qaisiya was on the roof of his home, in al-Fawwar refugee camp near Hebron. According to his younger brother who had been standing next to him, he and his family had gone up after hearing noise outside. Twenty Israeli soldiers had stormed the camp around 5:20 AM to detain Palestinians. Qaisiya is the second child killed by Israeli soldiers with live ammunition in the last two months and the fourth this year.

Since the advent of Covid-19 many countries around the world have responded to international appeals, such as the one by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to release prisoners, especially political prisoners and all those detained unlawfully or whose sentences are near their end. Prison conditions all around the world, Israel included, are dangerous for the spread of Covid-19. Israel released more than 500 prisoners serving criminal sentences. But it has not released a single Palestinian out of more than 5,000 political prisoners. Hundreds among them are held without trial under what is termed “administrative detention,” including hundreds of children, some under the age of fifteen. Their “crimes” range from throwing stones at occupation soldiers to posting statements against the occupation on social media.

In fact, Israel has increased the number of Palestinian detainees. Since March, it has arrested 357 Palestinians in the West Bank and Jerusalem, including forty-eight children and four women. Instead of halting arrests during Covid-19, Israel did not allow Palestinian detainees any personal contact with lawyers or families, citing health concerns. Both UNICEF and OCHA (the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) appealed to Israel in a joint statement to release Palestinian children in its prisons. It currently imprisons 194 children (a number higher than last year’s) without trial or being charged with any crime. Being deprived of contact with lawyers and family increases psychological trauma and forces many of these children to incriminate themselves and give false confessions to be released. According to local and international human rights organizations, Israel arrests, on average, between 500-700 Palestinian children every year. Many of them are subjected to mistreatment during interrogation and detention. None of these practices has ceased after Covid-19.


In April Israeli security forces stormed a testing clinic in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem because physicians there were cooperating with the Palestinian Authority. Activists said that more than forty cases of Covid-19 were recorded at the time in their neighborhood. Facing the lack in sufficient services and the premeditated negligence by the Israeli authorities of Palestinian areas in Jerusalem, Palestinian physicians decided to procure test kits with the help of the Palestinian Ministry of Health. But Israeli authorities stormed the facility, confiscated the kits, arrested the official, and closed the place. It also arrested Palestinian volunteers, including eight from Jerusalem, who were disinfecting public spaces and streets because Israel wasn’t. According to International law and conventions, Israel, as an occupying power, is responsible for protecting the population in the occupied territory and providing them with services.

Since the first case was detected on February 12, Israel has demolished sixty-nine Palestinian structures in the West Bank. This rendered sixty-three Palestinians homeless and affected 417. These structures included residential properties and seven water, sanitation, and hygiene facilities. According to reports by humanitarian organizations and the UN, donor states had provided a third of the destroyed or seized structures as humanitarian relief.


Dumped like trash.” This is how Ibrahim Abu Safiya described finding a Palestinian worker lying next to the Beit Sira checkpoint. Israel security had taken him from his place of work in Israel after he’d exhibited symptoms. They did not treat him, but left him on the road behind the Israeli checkpoint without even calling a Palestinian ambulance. During the lockdown, Israel allowed thousands of Palestinian workers to continue to work inside Israel, but without providing any essential medical or basic services, including tests. The aforementioned case is not an aberration. Forty-one Palestinian workers in a chicken slaughterhouse in the Atarut Industrial Zone in East Jerusalem exhibited Covid-19 symptoms and Israel didn’t test them or treat them. It just sent them back to their homes. Workers in that slaughterhouse described the conditions there, which are not dissimilar to other places where Palestinians work, to Haaretz. Two hundred and fifty workers were crammed in, with fifteen to twenty sleeping in the same place and sharing one toilet. None of them was given a mask and maintaining two meters of distance was impossible. Israel does not provide health care or insurance to any of the tens of thousands of Palestinians who work inside its borders.

The ghost of Covid-19 casts an even greater shadow over Gaza, which has recently registered its first virus-related death. Under siege by Israel for the last thirteen years, Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, with around two million Palestinians, most of whom live in poverty. The siege, and repeated Israeli wars, have wrecked Gaza’s health system and its economic and educational networks and devastated the population psychologically. Eight years ago, the UN predicted that by 2020 Gaza would be uninhabitable. Israel does not allow any Palestinian to leave to seek medical treatment in the West Bank or Jordan, except in very rare cases. It rarely allows foreigners to enter as well. Instead of easing the siege on Gaza, or allowing those in desperate need to leave, it has kept its siege in place.


The entire world is in a very precarious and vulnerable state with so many suffering the effects of Covid-19. For Palestinians, the effects of the pandemic compound and exacerbate what they already suffer on a daily basis under Israeli military occupation.

I go over the essay and double-check the data. It is twice as long as it should have been and yet so much more has to be said. I write this in New York where I have been living for years. But when writing and reading about Palestine I feel a pang in my heart. It reminds me of my annual return home to visit my family and the feeling I have from the moment I land until I leave. The feeling that my body, as a Palestinian, is besieged and vulnerable to a potential transgression at any time by Israelis, be they soldiers or civilians (or settlers). Being in public space is not a simple affair and I take every precaution when I’m in public so as not to become a news item or a headline about another Palestinian body.