A Cry for Solidarity: Palestine During Times of COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has been felt among all aspects of life. But what has been its effect on local peacebuilding? How have peacebuilders been able to continue pushing for changes during lockdowns? Around the world, peacebuilders have remained dedicated, adapting and innovating to continue their work. Yet the platform to express their efforts, work and importance in the COVID-19 response is nearly non-existent. We found a virtual connection to talk to longtime peacebuilding pioneer Lucy Nusseibeh, who strives daily for positive changes in Palestine. We sat down to discuss how the pandemic is affecting Palestine and peacebuilding on the ground.
How is COVID-19 affecting Palestine?
Strongly – both negative and positive. We managed well at the beginning. But just in the past week, as the results of opening up the lockdown are being felt. The cases are rising rapidly. It is starting to affect us again, and more negatively.
In order to free up beds and equipment in preparation for the coronavirus onslaught, a number of patients are not getting the care they need.
The negative impact initially was the lockdown, as well as the fear. Now with the increased number of cases, and given the weak healthcare system, we are seeing direct impact. In order to free up beds and equipment in preparation for the coronavirus onslaught, a number of patients are not getting the care they need. This has led to situations where patients have died in Gaza, although the cases there were so few and the hospitals could in fact have handled them.
The positive developments we are seeing, is that there is a real increase in solidarity. Palestinians eagerly formed community groups for distributing food and help and in some cases put up extra tents to function as hospitals. This was true throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem. This was welcomed given the increasing fragmentation that has been taking place in Palestinian society due to the many political frustrations and the overall oppressive situation.
Another positive impact was the appreciation by Israelis of the important role that Palestinian health workers play in their society. Especially during the first two months of the virus, this led to some humanisation by Israelis of Palestinians – quite a significant reversal of the constant dehumanisation.
Thirdly, the overall increase in awareness of the need for human security as opposed to military security.
The positive developments we are seeing, is that there is a real increase in solidarity.
And lastly, we see a positive change at the higher levels of government. There was clearly very efficient cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians on how to deal with the pandemic. The Palestinian government has very high approval ratings at the moment, much better than for a long time. The Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem have received a large grant from the EU and others.
What are some of the measures your government has taken as a response?
Initially lockdowns, closures of towns, schools and the banning of meetings and gatherings. The West Bank was closed off to even Palestinians from East Jerusalem.
All these measures also impact our peacebuilding work. Our work is currently focused on schools. Schools tried to function remotely, but families are too large and internet access is too patchy. This makes it impossible for us to work.
Our two new projects both involve working with teachers on media literacy and on participatory videos. We are trying to figure out to what extent we can give teachers virtual trainings.
How can you still build peace during a global pandemic?
My organisation, MEND, was invited to be involved in track two diplomacy (involving both Palestinians and Israelis) around easing the economic and movement restrictions of the occupation. We were starting to move ahead with proposals and conversations with potential donors. Despite this move in the right direction, the Palestinian Authority then cut all ties with the Israelis so the donors have asked us to wait, in limbo, until things become clearer.
This solidarity is something that used to happen, for instance, during the intifada of 1987, but that seemed to have vanished almost completely.
Is there any hope left in the country?
Peacebuilding involves relationship building and human connectivity – the pandemic has brought to many a renewed awareness of our connections and our humanity, along with the need for a focus on human security.
There has been a lot of community solidarity ---youths going around cleaning neighborhoods and community centers, food packages being distributed, free meals offered, landlords cancelling rents for businesses; university fees being reduced. This solidarity is something that used to happen, for instance, during the intifada of 1987, but that seemed to have vanished almost completely.
Solidarity among health professionals – it created a push towards the humanisation of Palestinians by Israelis (whereas the impact is generally towards dehumanisation, and dehumanisation is one of the key factors maintaining a conflict). The humanising element has given way to blame the “Arab community” for “nearly causing an onslaught of hundreds of patients” by the new Israeli “coronavirus czar”, who had to be reminded of the many Arab doctors and health workers on the front lines.
Sadly, as in many other places around the world, and before most, the second wave hit here, and for the past two months the covid situation has been far worse than the first time around. As the numbers of cases and deaths soar, the communal solidarity has not only all but disappeared, but has in many places transformed into individual anger and despair and an increase in intra Palestinian violence. The economy has plummeted and the Palestinian Authority is unable to provide any support or cushioning, even for the majority of their employees. As the Palestinians face hunger, the Israeli occupation is intensifying its tight and oppressive grip. This includes the destruction of an emergency field hospital in Hebron, which is the worst hit Palestinian city, and desperately in need of more beds.
Lucy Nusseibeh, has been striving for peace in the Occupied Palestinian Territories for decades. As the founder and director of Middle East Nonviolence and Democracy (MEND), Lucy has initiated many peacebuilding projects with women and youth directly affected by the conflict. Lucy has been living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since 1978, and founded MEND in 1998.