A Palestinian Perspective on Empathy amid Coronavirus Pandemic
This article was originally published on Electronic Intifada on 16 April 2020.
Palestinians like me, living outside our country, fear that the coronavirus pandemic could be the latest nightmare to befall our loved ones back home. As of now there are more than 12,000 confirmed cases in Israel, around 350 in the occupied West Bank and 13 in Gaza, my home.
Having grown up in Jabaliya refugee camp, I know that the types of prevention measures imposed in Europe or the United States cannot be applied in Gaza. “Overcrowding and a lack of living space characterize Jabaliya camp,” as the UN notes. “Shelters are built in close vicinity and there is a general lack of recreational and social space.” Big multi-generational families live under one roof. Houses are separated by shared walls or narrow alleys. Residents are within earshot of their neighbors’ conversations and privy to their daily routines. Social or physical distancing is next to impossible.
There are 114,000 people living in Jabaliya refugee camp, but a similar situation can be found across Gaza, where 70 percent of the population are refugees.
In total, two million Palestinians live in the Gaza Strip, under a tight Israeli blockade for 13 years. Half the population are children. Living conditions are already dire, after three major Israeli military assaults since 2008, along with the impact of the siege. Basic infrastructure and services, including electricity, education and healthcare are already far from adequate.
In 2018, the UN specifically warned of the risk of an epidemic in Gaza due to the degraded sanitation system, and the fact that 97 percent of the water supply is unfit for human consumption. Health experts and human rights organizations are now sounding the alarm that a major outbreak of COVID-19 would be catastrophic, and have called on Israel to lift its restrictions on bringing vital supplies into the territory.
The current crisis offers states and corporations, driven by the desire to accumulate power at the best of times, a unique opportunity to expand and consolidate their control.
Citing the coronavirus emergency, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has authorized the deployment of surveillance technology normally used for “counterterrorism.”
For Palestinians, the pandemic is not a temporary emergency but represents continuity. The occupying power has imposed a never-ending situation of emergency that dates back to 1948, when the creation of Israel uprooted 800,000 native Palestinians from their homes. During the Nakba, our grandparents assumed they would return in a couple of weeks. Today, we observe the birth of a fourth or fifth generation in refugee camps.
Moreover, the use of electronic surveillance by Israel to spy on and blackmail Palestinians is nothing new. What is new here is the use of technologies tested on Palestinians against the privileged Israeli Jewish population who were previously largely shielded from such intrusion.
And while the pandemic is a boon for companies and states seeking to expand their power, it is in the short term a blessing in disguise for Netanyahu. Until a few weeks ago, he was counting his last days as prime minister and facing imminent trial on corruption charges. But for him, the pandemic could not be more timely: a state of emergency which he can manipulate and use to maintain power.
While all focus is on the pandemic, attention is diverted from Israel’s continued military repression of Palestinians. In March alone, Israel detained more than 350 Palestinians across the occupied West Bank and Gaza, including 48 children and four women. Meanwhile, prisons where Israel holds some 5,000 Palestinian political detainees, are – like prisons around the world – turning into hotspots for coronavirus. Israeli jailers and at least one released Palestinian are among confirmed cases. At least four other Palestinians were potentially exposed to the virus during interrogation by an Israeli prison worker. This has pushed detainees and their advocates to call for urgent international action to save them from Israel’s systematic policy of medical neglect in its prisons.
It is clear that the “emergency response” to the new coronavirus does not mean a suspension of Israel’s systems of oppression.
In the midst of the crisis, it is hard to think ahead. There’s no doubt that many measures being applied are necessary to save lives, as perhaps a third of the world’s population is under some form of lockdown. But decisions made in these extraordinary times could permanently shape the post-pandemic reality.
Education has gone virtual. Only essential workers are permitted to go to work, while others work remotely and untold millions have lost their jobs. In addition to expanding surveillance via mobile phone, drones are being used to monitor streets and ordinary people are acting as informants against those they suspect of breaking the rules.
When the health emergency is over, will all this become the new normal?
Wartime metaphors are in vogue. President Donald Trump has appointed generals to prominent roles in the US government’s response to what he calls an “invisible enemy.”
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has declared that his country is “at war,” while Boris Johnson, the British prime minister, has asserted that “we must act like any wartime government.”
Maybe this language helps alert people to the severity of the threat, but such comparisons sound horrible to survivors of actual wars – including wars that these very leaders have supported or fueled.
Although many countries and companies make fortunes from the business of war, war is ugly. It destroys life and human relations. The laws and conventions that people are used to in peacetime do not apply in war zones. This pandemic is nothing like a war.
During a recent Skype call with dispersed family members in Gaza and Europe, we all joyfully watched as my youngest sister, Tamam, a refugee in Brussels, rushed to her balcony to join her neighbors applauding the efforts of health workers.
This triggered traumatic memories of us huddled together in our home in Gaza, with other families who had escaped neighborhoods under heavy Israeli fire. We sat around a battery powered radio in a blackout, the floor shaking beneath our feet, listening to explosions, houses collapsing and people dying.
Then, we were scared to even look out of the window.
Our family has been shaped by such memories, including my mother giving birth to me during a military curfew on Jabaliya camp. If you broke an Israeli curfew, you risked your life, not just a mere fine.
A chance to reflect
This pandemic is a chance for reflection for people born in safe places, who are used to taking their rights for granted.
Even under lockdown, many still have access to healthcare, housing, education and freedoms that others facing the same pandemic do not.
COVID-19 exploits and exacerbates existing inequalities, globally and within societies.
In the United States, for example, Black and Latino people are getting sick and dying in far higher proportions than white Americans.
The virus provides an opportunity to question and challenge power structures such as capitalism, colonialism and imperialism, which produce this uneven vulnerability. While some commentators have asserted that the coronavirus is a great equalizer, this is clearly not the case.
My family in Palestine hopes that this pandemic reminds people of how connected we all are. We should learn from others who have suffered with life’s uncertainties for as long as they remember because of man-made inequalities that make some people visible as others are rendered invisible.
We should be united for each other’s welfare, not warfare. We should learn from Cuba’s model of solidarity, as it sends doctors to coronavirus-hit countries, while the US tightens sanctions and pressures countries to reject Cuba’s aid.
The virus is teaching us that we can be asymptomatic but deadly to each other, especially the vulnerable. And we are learning that as long as the virus exists anywhere, no part of the world is truly safe.
In short, caring for and helping each other is not just a value to aspire to, but a necessity for our collective survival.
On Deported Palestinian’s Day, a deported man describes his life as “never settled”
On May 10, 39 Palestinians from Bethlehem completed eleven years of deportation from their precious homes. On the very same day, eleven years ago, they were expelled from the Church of Nativity after a siege by the Israeli Occupation Forces that lasted for 39 days: 26 men went to Gaza, 13 to Europe. Since that tragedy, which marked another form of ethnic cleansing, this day has been called ”Deported Palestinian’s Day”.
Since the last swap deal in October, hundreds of Palestinians have joined this category, as 203 ex-detainees were convicted to indefinite deportation. Moreover, ex-detainee Hana’ Shalabi was recently deported from Jenin to Gaza after hunger striking for 45 days to protest having been re-detained after midnight by a huge, aggressive force of Israeli soldiers, and held under administrative detention on February 16. Israel has intensively deported people from the West Bank to either the Gaza Strip or countries such as Turkey, Syria and Qatar. Israel offered administrative detainees Bilal Diab, Thaer Halahla, and Jafar Ez Al-Din Qadan, all on hunger strike for over two months, deportation to Gaza, but they refused this horrible offer and bravely insisted on continuing their battle of empty stomachs against Israel’s injustices and violations.
On May 10, hundreds of people from all generations marched to the sit-in tent for Palestinian political prisoners in Gaza to share the continued suffering of the deported Palestinians. The experience of exile, with all its pain, repeats itself hundreds of times in Palestine at the hands of Israel, as it openly violates the same Geneva Convention it ratified in 1951.
One of the people I am very proud to have met through the weekly protest for Palestinian detainees is a deportee from the Church of Nativity, Fahmi Kanan. Fahmi has been a good friend of mine, despite our difference in age: He is 43 years old, while I am only 20. He makes sure to attend every Gaza activity organized in solidarity with the Palestinian detainees and their families.
I remember very well Mr. Fahmi’s touching words when I first met him and asked him about the reason for his dedication to the detainees’ cause. “I have never lived a settled life,” he said. “First, I was born in a land under occupation. Secondly, I lived the hard life of detention inside Israel’s prisons five times, each under administrative detention. I was only a 17-year-old teenager when I was first detained. Thirdly, when I’m not detained, wherever I walk within the Palestinian territories, I’m ‘wanted’ and chased by the Israeli Occupation. Fourthly, I was one of the people besieged inside the Church of Nativity in 2002, then deported to Gaza. Our sufferings take different forms, but all of them result from one thing – Israel.”
Afterward, I learned that Mr. Fahmi is the spokesman for the people deported from the Church of Nativity. Having a shared passion for a just cause, Mr. Fahmi and I get along well. He always brings his kids with him to the protest for detainees. I’ve gotten to know him as a person, not merely as a political activist. I believe that children are reflections of their parents. In Mr. Fahmi’s case, his children are outstanding reflections. I always tell him, “If I ever have a child, I’d like to raise her or him the same way you did.” I see a bright future for Palestine through his kids who are, despite their young ages, very well-educated about Palestinian issues.
On the second day of Eid al-Adha last year, I saw him with all his kids in the weekly protest for detainees outside the International Committee of the Red Cross. When I asked him how his family in Bethlehem was doing, he replied, “I was on the phone with Dad this morning, greeting him for Eid. He is getting older. He fears that his death will be soon as he suffers from some health problems. My heart aches when he tells me that he wishes he could see his grandchildren before he dies.” I asked his 11-year-old son Nasr whether he was enjoying his Eid or not. He replied with a sad look on his face, “I feel like it is the same as any other day. All our relatives are in Bethlehem, and Eid without family is tasteless.” His words touched me very deeply.
When I shared with Mr. Fahmi what his son told me, he answered, “My kids were raised without their grandparents or relatives around. The times I was questioned about them are countless, especially during our traditional and religious feasts. But thankfully, they are smart enough to understand that this is one of the prices that Palestinian people pay for being merely Palestinian. And they are proud!”
Yesterday, Mr. Fahmi made a moving speech that showed the humanitarian aspect of a deported Palestinian’s suffering. “The hardest times in a deported person’s life are the times of need,” he said. “Today, we should remember Abdullah Dahoud, one of the 39 deported from the Church of Nativity. Sadly, he could not be among us today. He died of sorrow over his mother and sister, who passed away without him seeing them for one last time. When he was once asked about his fondest wish, he said, ‘I wish I could read a verse of Qura’n next to my mother’s grave.’”
Palestinians consider the United Nations a partner of the Israeli Occupation because of its silence. Security Council Resolution 607 “[c]alls upon Israel to refrain from deporting any Palestinian civilians from the occupied territories” and “[s]trongly requests Israel, the occupying Power, to abide by its obligation arising from the Convention.” But when it comes to reality, the UN chooses to take no action against Israel’s violations. We, the Palestinian people, don’t want resolutions, we want actions! We want real justice, not just words tossed into the air!
Palestinians Owe Ban Ki-moon No Apologies
Palestinian political prisoners are not only numbers
Last night, a new friend of mine noticed that I try to highlight the issue of Palestinian political prisoners in my writings. That led to a long chat about my interest in bringing out their stories. I started by describing how being the daughter of a former detainee has inspired a passion toward my homeland and the feeling of having a duty toward my people, especially our forgotten prisoners, within me.
I told him how attending the weekly protest with prisoners’ families in the Red Cross has turned to be a psychological cure for my own pains. It’s true. Sometimes I feel very sad, but as soon as I see a prisoner’s mother, wife, or daughter smiling, my spirit strangely rises. Interacting with the prisoners’ families and listening to their stories, full of suffering and pride, has created a warm relationship between us. They have become an important part of my life, and a reason to live.
I’ve always criticized the way prisoners are presented as numbers. Reports often show them as mere statistics, omitting that behind these figures there are humans desperate for dignified life and justice. Humanizing their issue by making their stories heard has been the main goal of my writings, with faith in humanity preserving my hope that their stories may wake the sleeping to take action.
Unconsciously, my life has recently centered on Khader Adnan. He is an administrative detainee who has been on hunger strike since December 17 to protest his illegal detention without trial. I have followed updates about his continuing hunger strike, his silence, his deteriorating health, the ban on his family visiting him, and the Israeli Prison Service (IPS)’s indifference and neglect of his situation. Gaza has held many events in solidarity with him and his family, who are terrified that each new dawn could bring news of his death.
Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Gaza
From Khader Adnan’s story, which has repeated itself thousands of times in Palestine, to news about United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Gaza, anger and frustration have dominated my mind.
Representatives of families of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and martyrs’ families wanted to join the delegation that would meet Ban. Civil society figures made intensive efforts to ensure that this would happen so he could hear about their demands and long years of suffering. However, Ban simply refused to meet these people, who wanted his support and protection for their violated rights. An angry crowd, having heard of his repeated visits to former Israeli prisoner Gilaad Shalit, hurled shoes and stones at his convoy as it entered Gaza Thursday morning.
I watched the video of the prisoners’ families throwing shoes and stones. Honestly, it filled me with joy and pride in my people. I thought that it might make the Palestinian people look bad in front of the international community. But I would have only one response for those who might define Palestinians as mere throwers of shoes against diplomats: Those shoe throwers included angry relatives of prisoners who have endured terrible conditions at the hands of merciless Israeli jailers. They are frustrated with Ban’s biases toward Israel, and have witnessed more than enough of Israeli brutality, tyranny, and violations of their simplest rights guaranteed by international law and the Geneva Conventions. Those people have been filled with anger by more than five years of living under a closure imposed by Israel, and declared illegal by UN bodies. They haven’t been allowed to visit their relatives in prison since Hamas was democratically elected, boycotted by the UN, and marginalized as a terrorist organization.
Om Ibrahim Baroud joined the angry crowd that welcomed Ban “disrespectfully”
Watching the video, I saw Om Ibrahim Baroud join the crowd that greeted Ban. Baroud is the 75-year-old
mother of a political prisoner who has spent 26 years in Israeli prisons, and for 26 years, she has never stopped calling for the freedom of her son. Despite her age, she has joined every hunger strike prisoners launched since her son was detained, and has never missed a protest for Palestinian political prisoners. She always says, “I am not only the mother of the detainee Ibrahim Baroud, but of all the prisoners and oppressed. I’ll keep calling for their freedom as long as I am alive”. Last Monday at the weekly protest in the Red Cross, she limped because of a pain in her leg, but was still fasting in solidarity with Khader Adnan and all prisoners. She spoke for the prisoners to the media, appealing to every human right organization to witness the suffering of Palestinian detainees and act.
In the video, she was angry as never before, gathering all her physical power to hit Ban’s convoy with a stick. Her strength has always impressed everyone who knows her. “I know I am for Ban, nothing more than a mother of a ‘terrorist’”, she told me on the phone with rage. “Why would he bother to listen to me? He must know that I am the mother of a human being who deserves dignity even in detention. And I am a human who deserves to be heard”.
No one should blame this mother, who has been deprived of wrapping her arms around her son for 26 years. No one should blame her after she witnessed countless Israeli attacks on Gaza, especially the 2008-2009 war. She saw the phosphorous bombs, banned by international law, falling on civilians who took shelter in the Al-Fakhoura UNRWA School after fleeing their homes. She lives near it. Don’t blame her when she explodes with anger after hearing of Ban Ki-moon’s thanks to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak – the architect of the 2008-2009 war – for his “generosity” towards Gaza; his generosity in redeeming the world of 352 children whom, if they hadn’t been killed, would have grown up into terrorists to threaten the holy security of Israel. Don’t blame her or any Palestinian when UN did nothing against Israel for the war crimes Israel committed even at UNRWA sites. Instead, they are biased toward Israel, while we have been terrorized daily by the Israeli Occupation ever since it was illegally established through ethnic cleansing.
Palestinians owe Ban Ki-moon no apologies
After this “disrespectful welcome” of Ban Ki-moon by the angry families of prisoners and martyrs, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) shamefully sent apologies to him.
But I’ll allow myself to speak on behalf of Palestinians and say proudly: “We make no apologies!” And I add: “The PLO doesn’t represent us.” Palestinians aren’t the ones who should apologize. The one who should apologize is who keeps talking of human rights, yet sees human rights continuingly and openly violated by Israel, but does nothing, instead covering up Israel’s crimes against humanity. Actually, thousands of apologies wouldn’t suffice to heal the long, bleeding wounds that Palestinians suffer from the long course of Israel’s occupation and existence.