2020-04 Newsletter Spring- Updates during Coronavirus | Machsomwatch
אורנית, מהצד הזה של הגדר

2020-04 Newsletter Spring- Updates during Coronavirus

Tuesday, 14 April, 2020
עברית אחרי אנגלית
NEWSLETTER SPRING 2020

 

M., an old acquaintance, is a farmer from A’anin. He called this evening to hear how I was doing and to tell me about himself.

He reported that “the entire community is isolated in their homes. The streets are empty.  We have oil, flour, olives, and vegetables – we’ll manage. But how will the olive trees manage? This is the season when we have to clear the weeds that can overtake the vineyard. But who in the District Command Office will permit us to cross the separation fence? Maybe you can talk to them and get permission for the farmers and their tractors to cross? There is no one to talk to...”  

I promised to try, and I reminded both of us that we Israelis are also closed off and everyone is afraid.

Be well, you and your entire family.  That’s why I called…”

Reported by Shuli Bar, MW Volunteer

 

 

For twenty years MachsomWatch volunteers have headed out on daily shifts to the West Bank. We were present at the checkpoints, agricultural gatesinfo-icon, Palestinian villages, village councils, and military courts. We conducted tours and worked behind the scenes to document our observations and to assist Palestinians caught up in massive bureaucratic tangles that restrict their ability to earn a living, to get medical treatment, to pray in their holy places, and to meet members of their families. Distance and weather did not deter us, until one day, several weeks ago, a separation wall called COVID-19 shut the gates of our activity.

Now we are all isolated in our daily lives, trying as best we can to protect ourselves from the coronavirus. The need to keep in touch with friends has translated into a different way of ‘visiting’. Our volunteers in each region of the country are calling those we usually visit in the West Bank in person, and they too are reaching out to us. The conversations are heart-warming, as they express mutual concern for health and well-being. Through these calls, we are able to continue reporting on what life is like for Palestinians in the West Bank. Here are summaries of our updates during the coronavirus outbreak.
 

 

 

The Bureaucracy of the Occupation
 

Ordinarily, during our regular open phone hours, there is not a moment without a call on hold.  Now there are very few calls and we are able to answer each call that comes in, even outside of regular hours.  Why fewer calls? Probably because Civil Administration offices and the Palestinian Liaison Offices are closed and Palestinians believe that everyone is off work. We’ve heard that possibly people have run out of phone minutes or that phone reception is unavailable. Nevertheless, the bureaucracy of the occupation continues its activities.

Since communication is via email, we continue to send requests and questions to the Civil Administration and we receive responses. In ordinary times we would refer some people to the Palestinian Liaison Office or to private offices in the West Bank that prepare requests. Since the private offices are now all closed we are actually making all the requests on behalf of those who contact us. Moreover, since the number of requests has dwindled we are reviewing our lists and contacting those who received a denial for their applications to be removed from the GSS blacklist a year ago. We offer to resend their requests at this time and try again.

Some numbers: Between March 1st and April 5th there was a flow of 410 emails with the unit of the Civil Administration that handles requests to remove people from the blacklist and with the DCOs. These emails include new requests for security clearings, inquiries, requests for review and requests regarding police blacklisting, as well as responses and approvals from the Civil Administration and the DCOs.

Regarding appeals to the court for removal from blacklisting status, the last time people signed in front of our lawyer was on March 13, 2020.  All pending appeals have been submitted.  In cases where there is no need for a court hearing, the system continues working: some petitioners have recently been removed from the blacklist or a settlement has been offered for a few additional months of remaining on the list before being cleared.  But if there is a need for court hearings, those are delayed and the prosecutor’s office asks to delay responses to open applications. 

As a last word:  the situation of the Palestinians we speak to is very bleak. These are the weakest groups in Palestinian society and they are economically the most vulnerable – especially now. Very few try to enter Israel without permits because they are afraid of catching the virus. So, there is no income for many families. We are incredibly moved by those who call us to ask how we are doing (even those having families in Gaza) even though they are often not aware that many of us in MachsomWatch are of a certain, very vulnerable age.
 

 

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Empty streets,  Yamum village, Jenin District

Northern West Bank
 

Our Palestinian friends in the northern region have been very appreciative of our calls and video chats. They report that for Palestinians the passage at the central Barta'a checkpoint is in one direction only - back to the West Bank. Settlers are able to move back and forth without any delays. Only special humanitarian cases are allowed to cross from the West Bank to Israel, and the passage of sick people to Israeli hospitals is greatly reduced because of the coronavirus closureinfo-icon. Palestinian Authority inspectors now check the Palestinians returning to the West Bank. When we enquire about their preparations for the festive month of Ramadan they answer: “Inshallah, it will be OK,”    but the worries are understood.

The Anin and the Taybe-Rummana agricultural checkpoints provide limited access for Palestinian farmers who own agricultural lands on the Israeli side of the separation fence. These checkpoints have been shut since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. Palestinians have been unable to reach their olive groves to perform essential and urgent work in preparation for the growing season. 
We have just learned that several days after the beginning of Passover, the army opened these agricultural gates and have cut additional openings along the separation fence. These checkpoints are currently unmanned. Nevertheless, Palestinian farmers are fearful of going to cultivate their lands as they have been explicitly banned from doing so by the Palestinian Authority. This is mainly because of concern about the spread of coronavirus by the unsupervised return from Israel of Palestinian workers. The farmers thus find themselves between a rock and a hard place.    

A. from Kfar Yamun in the Jenin District told us that there are no shortages of groceries, olives, flour, oil or za'atar. Many Palestinians decline offers of construction jobs in Israel for fear of contracting the coronavirus. 
A. from Arqa village in the West Bank, east of the Shaked settlement, claimed that the Palestinian Authority intends to go from house to house in the next few days and conduct coronavirus tests for everyone. Those in need of medical care will move to buildings in the larger cities that have been converted to temporary hospitals. The duration of isolation will also be increased to 28 days (sounds tougher than in Israel).
W. from Kfar Zabda informed us that there are many roadblocks set by the Palestinian Authority to locate workers returning from Israel. When caught these men are immediately sent into isolation by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. 

What is clear to us is that despite trying to obey isolation instructions and not walk around the village and its surroundings (except for required agricultural work), it is difficult to maintain isolation conditions in the clan structure where an entire extended family lives in close proximity, and meets regularly - children and adults together.

 

a child planting in Burin village, March 2020

Central West Bank
  

At the beginning of March, we stopped our visits to the West Bank villages and to the agricultural checkpoints of the Seam Zone. We maintained contact through phone calls, sharing our fears of the coronavirus and learning about the Palestinians’ situation. Our Palestinian friends express concern about our wellbeing and tell us that they all stay at home with their children and go out only for essential shopping.   Several villages and towns have cut themselves off from the main roads for fear of contamination. "We are used to closures”, they tell us. The Palestinian police patrols the villages, demanding that people stay indoors and offering help to those in need.   Everybody is concerned about the deterioration of the economic situation.

Violent Incidents
Unfortunately, a few villages continue to suffer from attacks by settlers and the army in spite of the coronavirus and the closure.
Beita: Just before the closure, on March 1st, four volunteers met with the mayor of Beita, after having received a message about a violent incident. The mayor was one of the 191 non-armed Palestinians wounded when soldiers shot tear gas and rubber bullets to expel the unarmed peaceful villagers who rely on themselves in conflicts with settlers who are trying to take control of a hill with an ancient site belonging to Beita.
Burin: While we had to stop our frequent visits to Burin, supporting our friends as they were being attacked by settlers, we remained in phone contact. We were informed of several incidents, which had occurred on the 5th, 7th and 16th of March. Settlers from Yitzhar and Bracha threw stones, broke windows, hit cars and damaged water tanks in Burin and Madame. When the Palestinians tried to chase them away the army attacked them with tear gas and rubber bullets. On one occasion, a few Palestinians were injured by the gas, but the soldiers sent back the ambulance which came to their rescue. Now, that the army has closed off Yitzhar, the are being bothered by settlers from Giv’at Ronnen. 
Qadum:  The army is present in spite of the coronavirus. S. reported on April 5th that soldiers had entered the village, came near the mosque, shooting tear gas rubber and even live bullets. 

Agriculture
Farmers from several villages, whose land is in the Seam Zone and beyond fences in enclaves in the center of the West Bank are distressed, as they cannot reach their land since the agricultural gates were closed at the beginning of March. Every few days we hear of changes in the army’s policy. First, only the Deir al-Russun checkpoint was open, but only for owners of large hothouses. Later, after the intervention of an NGO, farmers in Far’oun were allowed to pass their checkpoints for several days, then the Jayyus and Falamya checkpoints opened daily, but only for farmers who grow vegetables and fruits. It seems the decision not to open the agricultural gates regularly is arbitrary and does not help to control the virus. O., a nursery owner, who cannot sell his plants because of the Palestinian Authority’s restrictions, reported that the Habla gate, allowing residents of Arab a-Ramadin to access the West Bank as well as the passage of nursery owners, opens three times a day, but the number of permits has been cut. 
 

 

Sheikh Saa'ed Checkpoint closed

Jerusalem
 

Through telephone conversations with our acquaintances from the checkpoints and from reports by colleagues in other human rights organizations, we have learned that in East Jerusalem, almost no coronavirus tests had been administered during the first three weeks of the crisis. The alarmed residents were unable to receive information and instructions in Arabic and estimates are that the rate of infection is greater than officially reported and are on the rise. In addition, water shortages are more severe just when larger quantities of water are needed for cleaning and handwashing. The usual neglect of services (including sanitation) by the Jerusalem municipality has intensified. There is a lack of safeguarding and disinfection equipment even for volunteers who try to operate where the municipality is absent.  And now, with Ramadan fast approaching, no one knows whether they will be able to pray in the al-Aqsa Mosque and hold the customary festive family celebrations.

Residents of Jerusalem neighborhoods trapped beyond the separation wall are unsure if and until when the barriers that control their entire life will remain open and what their fate will be. The worried residents have tried to take matters into their own hands and established closure patrols and checkpoints themselves. Security units of the Palestinian Authority entered this vacuum and started operating within the area of Israeli sovereignty, apparently initially with Israeli consent (in Kafr Aqab). Though the quarantine is self-maintained, the situation in these neighborhoods seems to be deteriorating to a state of administrative chaos, and despair is great. 

The checkpoint linking Sheikh Saa’ed to Jabel Muhabar was closed in mid-March, opened after a day for Jerusalem ID holders, and then closed again hermetically, cutting off this neighborhood from medical services and food supplies.  We learned that panic gripped the Shuafat refugee camp when people heard about the plan to shut the checkpoint to Jerusalem and prevent residents beyond the separation wall from entering the Israeli side. Thus far, the municipality's intervention has prevented this closure. However, the residents have started patrolling themselves to prevent people from entering from the West Bank. Recently, Palestinian police have entered the neighborhood to shut down businesses and disperse crowds. 
Issawiya, located near the French Hill neighborhood, has been receiving tough police treatment. Night arrests of minors and unnecessary daily friction make the closure difficult to maintain. The residents of Wallaja, the southern Jerusalem village enclosed by the separation wall from all sides, are facing, without any municipal support, the hardships of unemployment and loss of livelihoods, as well as being cut off from their agricultural lands. On top of this, inspectors keep coming in with demolition orders for construction sites with no permit.

 

Hebron and South Hebron Hills 
 

Hebron 
From frequent telephone calls, we hear that the Palestinians living in the Israeli part of the city are generally following instructions, staying at home, the mosques are closed and the city is pretty deserted. There is no shortage of food, but prices have risen significantly, and there are concerns about shortages of certain items such as SIM cards for mobile phones. People are worried about the future and miss having information and contact with the Palestinian Authority. They are uncertain about what will happen during the month of Ramadan which begins on April 24th. Will Ramadan bring religious calm or increased economic difficulties? Their economic future is particularly worrying, especially if the possibility of going to work in Israel will not be renewed soon. 
There are many reports of settler harassment incidents. The settlers also continue to renovate the disputed Rachel and Leah Houses. A. told us that on Saturday, April 4th, Palestinian children played in Tel Rumeida, and settlers beat them up and also struck the army officer who tried to separate them. E., who runs a club for youth who practice non-violent opposition to the occupation, told us that the club is subject to repeated attacks. But in general, as the coronavirus crisis continues, there is a feeling that the occupation is less noticeable because there are more pressing problems on both sides. The army stops fewer people because the soldiers want to observe social distancing.

South Hebron Hills
Here we also hear that there is no shortage of food, but a worrying rise in prices. It seems that the army is less involved in daily life, but the settlers continue to harass shepherds and farmers. N. from the village of A-Tuwani reported that on March 26th, settlers from the Maon Farm drove into the fields on a tractor and chased the shepherds away from the pasture. The army arrived and broke up the disturbance. On Saturday, March 28th, children from Um Tuba were attempting to return home when settlers from the Maon Farm prevented their passage. A large quarrel broke out and three Palestinians were arrested. Two were released and one remained in custody.

On the one hand, Israel is using the coronavirus crisis to lock down entire villages and is adding barrier gates to further restrict movement. On the other hand, we received requests by Palestinians to ask the army not to turn a blind eye to Palestinian workers returning from Israel via mountain footpaths, for they fear that they will spread the virus. There is a similar problem with those seeking medical treatment because hospitals in Israel restrict entry. Those coming back from Israel are subject to a two-week quarantine. 
Generally, there is a sense of community support and solidarity and hope that peace organization will renew their visits once the coronavirus crisis is over. 

 

Demolition in Hirbet Ibziq, 26.3.20. Photo: Sharon Gamzo

Jordan Valley
 

The situation of the Palestinian shepherd communities in the Jordan Valley is more difficult now than ever, as there are food shortages. MachsomWatch members, who used to visit these shepherd families regularly several times a week, now keep in touch by telephone. We were told that they have been cut off from neighboring towns because of the coronavirus and can neither sell their milk products for income nor access shops to buy vegetables, fruits, and other essential commodities. The Jordan Valley Coalition, in which we participate, has launched a donation campaign. M., a local activist, has arranged for a driver with a small truck to bring and sell fresh fruits and vegetables to the dispersed communities and pick up their merchandise for sale in town.

On top of the general uncertainty and their fear of the coronavirus and of contamination by Palestinians returning from work in Israel, the shepherd communities are facing attacks by settlers backed by the army. Until March, our volunteers accompanied shepherds to protect them from settler violence.  Often, we documented settlers and soldiers chasing away shepherds and their herds from areas where they had a right to pasture. 

It seems that now the settlers are taking advantage of the absence of Israeli Human Rights volunteers to harass the Palestinians and keep them further away from wide areas of pasture. M. reported to us that on March 25th settlers from Maskiot attacked two shepherds from Ein al-Hilwe. The shepherds were taken into custody by the army and then released. The son of one of the shepherds was later attacked by the settlers and had to be hospitalized. Lately, settlers have been demanding that the shepherds not cross to the eastern side of Alon Road, where they used to pasture for decades.  This is a death sentence for them.

The Palestinian residents of the Jordan Valley also feel the burden of steps taken against them by the army. On March 23rd the army closed the only road connecting the small community of al-Farsiya to the rest of the Valley. Following a complaint made at our request by a lawyer, the obstruction was removed. We feel that sometimes our pressure yields results and that we will continue to intervene whenever possible. We were also informed that on March 26th the army arrived at Khirbet Ibziq with heavy vehicles in order to destroy and confiscate materials and equipment destined to build two medical units, a mosque and four houses for families whose homes have recently been demolished. 

Our Palestinian friends in the Jordan Valley keep telling us that they miss the presence of the Israeli activists but implore us, even strongly insisting,  that we not visit them now.   

 


 

Military Courts
 

When our volunteers attempted to visit the Ofer Camp Military Court near Jerusalem in early March, they were denied entry.  Since then they have learned of other hearings that have been canceled. A few cases are being deliberated from 2018 and 2019 (we are guessing that the time has come for plea bargaining in those cases).  Deliberations planned on cases of arrests made in 2020 are constantly being deferred.
In a recent conversation with Attorney Mahmoud Hassan of Addameer (the Human Rights and Prisoner Support Association), we learned that very few hearings are taking place in all the military courts, especially detention hearings and administrative detention. Present in the hearing is only the judge, prosecutor, and defense attorney. The detainee is not present and the conversation with him is done by video. At this point the judge leaves the court, to allow privacy, and the defense attorneys don’t know who is standing at the side of their clients and wonder if they can speak freely.
In addition, today there are many detaineesinfo-icon in General Security Services facilities who are barred from meeting with attorneys. Attorney Hassan concludes that the current behavior only exposes more fully the farce called the “military court”.

 

 
 
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