What COVID-19 Looks Like in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

For Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, COVID-19 is threatening an already strained health care system.

In those areas, Palestinian officials have reported nearly 500 cases, and just two deaths. So far, pre-existing security restrictions have played a role in preventing a more rapid spread of the virus in Palestinian communities. But officials have warned that if the number of cases rises, hospitals that serve these communities would be ill-prepared.

To learn more about health care conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories, The Takeaway spoke with Dr. Mutaz Siyam, a doctor based in East Jerusalem, and Amjad Iraqi, an editor at 972 Magazine and policy analyst for Al-Shabaka, a non-partisan think tank focused on Palestinian human rights.

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Palestine at the ICC: Prospects and Limitations

While the world remains fixated on the latest developments surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, Palestine’s case at the International Criminal Court presses on.

In this policy lab, international legal experts Ardi Imseis and Halla Shoaibi join host Nur Arafeh to weigh in on the current status of the case, its prognosis, and how actions taken at the ICC fit into a larger Palestinian legal strategy.

 

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Analysis: Israel set for ‘dangerous, right-wing’ coalition gov’t

Just hours before Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz reached an agreement to form a unity government.

The deal, agreed on Monday, broke a political impasse that saw three elections taking place in less than a year, all of them rendering inconclusive results.

Despite the bribery and corruption charges he has been indicted for, head of the right-wing Likud party Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, managed to extend his reign for another 18 months under the agreement.

Gantz, head of the centre-right Blue and White alliance, whose election campaign ruled out the possibility of a coalition government with Netanyahu, will become defence minister and deputy prime minister before taking over from Netanyahu for the second half of the government’s rule.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had given Gantz the mandate to form a government. But when he failed before the deadline, Rivlin authorised the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, with the task.

The pair now has 21 days to form the government with a majority of 61 votes. Failure to do so will mean that the Knesset will dissolve on May 7 and an unprecedented election will take place by August 4.

Netanyahu vs the legal system

The unity government agreement includes the ability of Netanyahu, with the support of the United States, to advance legislation to annex parts of the occupied West Bank starting from July 1.

Gantz had expressed similar views on the annexation, which, under international law, is considered illegal.

On Monday, the more contentious issues finally ironed out revolved around the legal system within Israel and the committee to appoint judges.

Netanyahu now has to power to veto the appointments of the next attorney general and state prosecutor. His trial, in three corruption cases, will start on May 24 at the High Court of Justice.

Israel’s Supreme Court will now have to deal with a tough question of whether Netanyahu will be eligible to lead the country as prime minister, according to Akiva Eldar, a political analyst and Haaretz contributor.

“There is no precedent to this in the entire democratic world,” Eldar told Al Jazeera.

“The unity agreement, which Netanyahu formed to immunise himself from the high court’s ruling, states that if he is ruled ineligible to be prime minister, neither anyone from his Likud party or Gantz can become leader. It’s either Netanyahu or a fourth election.”

The unity government, Eldar added, is set for a head-on collision between the government and the high court.

Gantz lacks ‘political skill-set’

Gantz, a former Israeli military chief of staff, has little political experience and has disappointed some of his followers by agreeing to a coalition government with Netanyahu, who has been in power for the last five years and 14 years in total.

“Gantz was presented as the anti-Netanyahu, a man who was supposed to replace a corrupt prime minister,” said Amjad Iraqi, a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network think tank.

“Because Gantz has flip-flopped on what was effectively his core platform, he has shown his supporters that he’s not a real politician by not keeping to his campaign pledges and effectively being played by Netanyahu to agree to a unity government.”

The decision to enter a coalition government with Netanyahu has been in the works since last month, causing Gantz’s alliance of three parties to splinter only 13 months after it was formed to bring Netanyahu’s reign to an end.

“Gantz has shown he doesn’t really have the experience or the skillset to play the political game, as shown by his own political party breaking up into three,” added Iraqi. “So his reputation as a political leader no longer has that kind of credibility.”

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Israel’s Losing Battle: Palestine Advocacy in the University

Overview 

Palestine Legal recently published a report noting that the majority of suppression of Palestine advocacy in the US targets students and faculty. In particular, 89% of such incidents occurred on college campuses in 2014, and 74% in 2019. While these statistics illuminate the current struggle that university-based advocates for Palestinian rights are facing, it is also critical to trace the development of Palestine advocacy on US college campuses. Tracking this 20- to 30-year history allows a better understanding of not only how we got here, but also of the current and intensifying campaign against students and faculty – and how to fight it. 

This commentary first provides an historical examination of the Palestine advocacy movement in the United States and how Palestinian advocacy on college campuses emerged from it, using Students for Justice in Palestine as a particular example. It then analyzes Israel’s and its supporters’ response to this shift. The piece ultimately offers recommendations for how the university setting, despite attacks against it, can continue to provide and even amplify an environment that fosters critical research and thinking on Palestine, which in turn furthers the struggle for Palestinian rights and self-determination. 

Emergence of the US Palestine Advocacy Movement 

The movement for Palestinian rights in the US grew at the same time as other global struggles, namely those against the South African apartheid regime, against US intervention in Central America, and against the US attack on Iraq in the First Gulf War. Domestic political campaigns were simultaneously underway in the 1980s, particularly against the Reagan administration’s cuts to education, health care, and the environment, as well as its dubious war on drugs, aided by the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which expanded the prison industrial complex and furthered the mass criminalization of black and brown people. Domestic activism also fought economic restructuring that removed the safety net under the guise of welfare reform and sent millions into poverty. 

Progressive movements emerged from these campaigns that positioned Palestine more centrally than it had been before. Palestine activism and Palestinian activists challenged the shifts in national priorities and supported the anti-apartheid struggle, the campaign challenging US expansionism in Central America, and the movement against the Iraq war.

On the other end of the spectrum, pro-Israel organizations positioned themselves on the wrong side of history: They resisted sanctions on South Africa and tried to protect sales of Israeli arms to the apartheid regime. Likewise, they supported Israel as it advised and aided the state-sponsored Central American death squads. And when it came to US intervention in the Middle East, Israel and its supporters likewise backed US war efforts, seeing them as beneficial to Israel’s security.  

Progressive political mobilizations and domestic struggles have made Palestine a central theme of their organizing. Just 30 years ago the political left in the United States, in its mobilization for peace, justice, and jobs, regularly debated whether or not to allow a Palestinian flag, let alone a speaker, on a stage. Today, one cannot have a political mobilization on any subject, local or global, without Palestine being a part of it – if not in the main framing, then as one of the themes. Those who would advocate or speak on the side of Israel, in contrast, are hard-pressed to be given space on such a stage because they have cast their lot with the right-wing military industrial complex and its pernicious interventions. 


Today, one cannot have a progressive political mobilization on any subject, local or global, without Palestine being a part of it
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Israel’s 2012 attack on the Gaza Strip brought about a decisive shift in thinking about Israel, both at the grassroots level and among policy analysts. Both groups are aware that Israel flouts international law and shows no restraint in its abuse of Palestinian human rights. Moreover, while a pro-Israel agenda initially dominated the mainstream media, with talking heads’ constant refrain of how Israel has “the right to defend itself,” the less controlled spaces of social media and the internet have allowed a narrative shift that favors a more critical side of the political spectrum – so much so that the mainstream media has actually begun to change. 

Palestine Advocacy on College Campuses

Together, and partly as a result of the tireless work of progressive activists, developments outlined above have allowed for the strengthening of Palestine advocacy on college campuses. Indeed, a perspective in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle has become the dominant perspective at universities. One example of this shift is the founding and proliferation of the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

SJP was founded at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992, following the First Gulf War. Before the war, sizable numbers of Palestinians had come to the US to study, but those numbers diminished as the military confrontation turned into the years of the sanctions regime. As Yasser Arafat had supported Saddam Hussein in the war, Palestinians in Kuwait and the rest of the Gulf were dismissed from their jobs and forced out, with the result that many of those Palestinians who had been able to afford a US education for their children no longer could. Without Palestinian students in US universities, efforts to organize for Palestinian rights decreased. 

This phenomenon likewise occurred just after the Oslo Accords, which decreased Palestinian activism that was linked to the broader Palestinian transnational movement, as through Oslo the PLO agreed to limit its international advocacy against Israel. 1 As a result, Palestinian activists on college campuses no longer had a support base with an historical legacy. In the context of campus activism, the PLO from its inception had a strong university and youth arm that crystalized into the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS), with branches across the globe, including in the United States. As a result of the PLO transforming itself into the Palestinian Authority, the role, institutional capacities, and importance of GUPS declined. 

An alternative way to advocate was to organize for Palestinians’ liberation as a principle, welcoming any student wanting to work for justice in Palestine. This was the genesis of SJP, which now has more than 200 chapters in the United States, Canada, and New Zealand. Many of those students who worked to support liberation and anti-racism struggles in South Africa, Central America, and in the United States joined SJP because they saw the connections among the struggles. 

At the same time, the number of Jewish Americans who no longer consider Israel the central part of their identity and who identify as anti-Zionist has been increasing. A significant number are now members of SJP. These youth cannot be committed to opposing the prison industrial complex, militarism, racism, and anti-immigrant discourse without seeing Palestine as a paradigmatic representation of what they instinctively know is wrong: Israeli apartheid. 


A perspective in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle has become the dominant perspective at universities
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In large part due to the work of SJP and other groups at universities across the US and the globe, Israel no longer has a case to stand on intellectually and academically. This 20 to 30-year political evolution must be accounted for as we measure why Israel is currently acting in an undisciplined manner to try to reconstitute support, when the dam of lies and obfuscation has already burst.  

Israel’s Desperate Response

The loss of Israel’s standing in higher education and among the American intelligentsia has spurred the Israeli Ministry of Strategic Affairs (IMSA) and Israel’s supporters to frenetically try to reverse this situation. There is thus an overwhelming percentage of attacks on college campuses. Yet the only tool that pro-Israel advocates and the IMSA have to try to recover some level of standing at universities is raw power through defamation. Therefore schemes like Canary Mission and the Lawfare Project target students and faculty through claims that Palestine advocacy and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS) are anti-Semitic. 

These forces are simultaneously trying to mobilize state legislatures and Congress to pass legislation to protect Israel from the right to free speech when it concerns Palestine. This is a strategic mistake, because the focus on preemptive silencing shifts the debate to one of first amendment and constitutional rights, which so far remains a generally well-protected right in the US context. 

The Israeli government’s use of raw power demonstrates its anxiety. Indeed, the sign of real power is when one can exercise restraint and refrain from using power because people fear its deployment. In this sense Israel is desperate to try to reconstitute a barrier against its rapidly diminishing standing, including in broader US society. 

The Democratic Party’s grassroots as well as its rank and file, for example, have abandoned Israel as a central aspect of their platform. One can trace this phenomenon to attacks on President Obama by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC, beginning with Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 and culminating in assaults against his Iran deal, including Netanyahu’s March 2015 speech in a joint session of Congress that expressed the Israeli leader’s unvarnished opposition to a sitting US president. These attacks led many in the Democratic Party to understand that such targeting of Obama related to the rise of the Tea Party and ultimately to Trump, helping to disrupt the former party line on Israel. 

Israel’s attempts to use naked power to silence criticism has also not gone over well with many Democrats. It is thus not surprising that Bernie Sanders is beginning to recognize that opposing Israel and skipping AIPAC – even pointing out that AIPAC is a “platform for bigotry” – no longer has the same negative consequences among much of the party’s constituency. 

Though Trump’s December 2019 executive order combating anti-Semitism on college campuses may appear disastrous – the order allows for de-funding institutions based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism, which includes criticism of the Israeli state, making Palestine advocacy “anti-Semitic” – it is important to understand that the status quo on Israel has been tumbling since the Oslo Accords. This order is a rash attempt to stem that downward spiral. Further, when Trump puts his name to something, a large base opposes it if only because Trump has done it. 


It is no longer possible to reconstitute Israel in the university setting and broader civil society as a state not considered a violator of human rights and international law
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Of course, in the short term there will be negative effects on students and faculty, such as attempts to shut down classes on Palestine, online harassment, and condemnations against departments and student groups. Recent attacks on the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University and SJP and Columbia University Apartheid Divest at Columbia University illustrate these difficulties. 

However, though such actions may benefit the Israeli government and Trump in the near term, in the long run the changes in Israel’s standing are irreversible. It is no longer possible to reconstitute Israel in the university setting and broader civil society as a state not considered a violator of human rights and international law. Those in higher education can work to shore up this trend through a number of efforts. 

Furthering Palestine in the University 

Students, faculty, and those working in academic institutions must demand that Palestine be included and engaged with on its own terms. As such, they must insist on classes that interrogate and contextualize Palestine without questions of whether it is “good for Israel” or of its relationship to Zionism. 

As such, approaching Palestine in the context of internationalist emancipatory struggles – making it part of humanity’s shared modern history, rather than an exception – is key. A course could, for instance, contrast liberation movements in Sub-Saharan Africa and Palestine. Such a class would not only consider South Africa, but would also examine the Palestinian movement’s engagement with African unity campaigns and their collective work on anti-colonial and decolonial movements in the 1960s and 1970s. Another course could examine the relationship between Palestine and Latin America, where robust Palestinian communities exist. 

Faculty and students should also insist on developing institutional capacity within various universities and settings. So far, Palestine Studies per se is offered as a program of study only at Brown University and Columbia University. Students can mobilize on campuses to insist on forming programs in the same way as ethnic studies programs were developed institutionally in the 1960s and 1970s. Creating study abroad programs to Palestine is also key. 

Academics working on Palestine also need to mobilize financial resources to support these programs. Palestinians in the United States and elsewhere have not strategically developed their top-end financiers. They must mobilize these donors to invest in initiatives that will have long-term, positive consequences for the Palestinian struggle.

Lastly, legal teams that provide protection in academic settings must be strengthened. Palestine Legal, founded in 2012, already provides much-needed support, but such work must be reinforced and intensified.  

In sum, the attacks on academics, SJP, and Palestine activists must be understood within a long historical durée and a deep appreciation for the trajectory toward justice underway on college campuses, nationally and internationally. The moral, ethical, and intellectual arguments successfully opposing well-funded and institutionally connected Israeli efforts at demonization should help continue the struggle for Palestinian liberation and an end to apartheid. In the face of overwhelming odds, Palestine’s future is being formed firstly inside historic Palestine, as well as in the solidarity and BDS movements across the globe and on college campuses. Just as apartheid South Africa was put into the dustbin of history, we are approaching a free Palestine. 

Notes:

  1. Personal communication with the late Haidar Abdel-Shafi, the head of the Palestinian negotiations team, during the Oslo period.

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From Rikers Island to Palestine

Over 25,000 people attended the Jewish Voice for Peace rally to Free All Prisoners from Rikers Island to Palestine, held on Zoom and Facebook. Commemorating Palestinian Prisoners Day, an international panel of speakers called for a world without prisons. The rally can be watched here on Facebook.

Stefanie Fox, Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace, opened the rally by declaring: “We are here together because, across the world, prisons are incubating death for our loved ones. Today is Palestinian Prisoners Day –  and we gather in urgency to support the freedom struggle against prions in U.S. and for freedom in Palestine!”

From Ahed Tamimi, the Palestinian youth activist held in an Israeli prison for eight months when she was 16, to black rights grassroots activist and academic Marc Lamont Hill, to Dareen Tatour, the Palestinian poet imprisoned by the Israeli government for her writing, to Andrea James founder of the National Council For Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, speakers called out the inhumanity of prisons and demanded freedom for prisoners and detainees everywhere.

During the rally online actions were held to boost the #PalestinianPrisonersDay twitterstorm, hundreds of calls were made to elected officials to support the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together Act (FIRST Act), and participants were encouraged to donate to the National Bail Fund Network Fund.

Quotes from the speakers, bios follow below. Some speakers are available to speak with the media.

Marc Lamont Hill: “COVID is forcing us to recognize how unsafe and how dangerous prisons are. The overcrowding in prisons in Palestine and the U.S. means that if you are arrested for throwing a rock, or writing a poem, or for politically dissenting, you aren’t being imprisoned for a few months – you’re getting a death sentence. Free the land, free political prisoner, free Palestine, free Mumia!”

Ahed Tamimi: “We have to – as people – stand and support Palestinian prisoners because our humanity commands us to do so. The Israeli government treats Palestinian prisoners like animals. But our support for Palestinian prisoners isn’t just today, but every day, in all places, from all people  – we keep organizing so that even if we aren’t able to free them all, Palestinian prisoners will at least know we haven’t forgotten them.”

Dareen Tatour: “Our prisoners are rotting in Israeli prisons and they have been there for years. Their health is deteriorating daily because they are thrown in small cells with no windows, light or air. Our prisoners are suffering daily from the epidemic of occupation, oppression, suffering and medical neglect. In these difficult days of coronavirus, the prison administration is taking advantage of this pandemic and global crisis. On Palestinian Prisoners Day, we unite in our commitment to work together until Palestinians are liberated and Palestinian prisoners are set free, and we finally are all cured from this disease.”

Mariame Kaba: “Our future and imaginations are important because the horizon I work for is one I’ve never seen – a world without prisons, without policing or surveillance. In order to create these pathways, we have to lead with imagination and envision: What can we grow instead of punishment and suffering?”

Arab Marwan Barghouti: “As a son whose father is in prison, I am really worried. In prisons, everything is common and no one is safe. But I know the only times we feel weak are the times we feel alone, but when everyone understands this is a humane issue, and we protest together, our demands will be answered.”

Randa Wahbe: “While the entire world is sheltering in place, Israel is continuing to entrench its military occupation and colonization of Palestinian land. As Palestinians are working to save their communities from coronavirus and are faced with a dire lack of medical supplies, the Israeli military continues to make daily raids on Palestinian refugee camps, ransacking homes, making arrests and interrogations – 357 Palestinians (48 of whom are children) were arrested since the beginning of March.”

Andrea James: “Incarcerated people are exempt from CDC guidelines. Formerly incarcerated women were the first to lose their jobs. We need mass release, stimulus money for housing, free phone calls for people incarcerated, soap, masks… Release needs to be at the forefront of what everyone is calling for. Free her, but also free them all!”

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Row in Gaza over arrests for Zoom chat with Israelis

A fierce dispute has divided the Palestinian community after Gaza’s rulers, Hamas, arrested six local activists for chatting by video conference with left-leaning campaigners in Israel.

Islamist group Hamas bans all communications with Israel and last week arrested the six members of the Gaza Youth Committee on charges of “treason” and “normalisation” of relations with the Jewish state.

The arrests have sparked a fierce free-speech row that has drawn in a former Gaza-based contractor with human rights group Amnesty International who had criticised the activists online.

In the two-hour call via video conference service Zoom — the latest in a format they have called “Skype with your enemy” — the participants had discussed their daily lives and expressed hopes for better leadership for both Israelis and Palestinians.

Rami Aman, 36, the founder of the Gaza Youth Committee, and the five others were detained, accused of “treason”, after speaking to the dozens of Israeli activists online.

Gaza’s Hamas-run interior ministry said that “establishing any activity or communication with the Israeli occupation under any excuse is a crime punishable by law, and is treason against our people”.

Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by Israel and most Western states, seized control of Gaza in a 2007 near civil war.

Since then the Jewish state has fought three devastating wars in Gaza while maintaining a crippling blockade on the coastal strip, arguing it must isolate Hamas.

– ‘Not a mistake’ –

A key player in the row has been the former Amnesty activist Hind Khoudary, who on Facebook criticised Aman over the alleged act of “normalisation” with Israel.

Khoudary tagged several Hamas officials in the online post, ensuring Aman’s Zoom call would come to their attention.

Gaza’s interior ministry has however denied that Khoudary’s posts tipped them off to the video call.

“It is not true what was published, saying citizens or journalists publishing posts on Facebook and social media were responsible for the arrests,” ministry spokesman Iyad al-Bozm said.

“Rami Aman and his group are under surveillance all the time by the security services.

“Unfortunately, Rami tried to carry out activities that violate the law and the culture and customs of our people.”

Khoudary told AFP she did not regret her posts and did not oppose Aman’s arrest, while stressing that she was not responsible for his detention.

“I didn’t make a mistake,” she said, criticising him over what she described as his attempt to speak on behalf of all Palestinians.

“As a Palestinian, before I became a journalist, I am against normalisation,” said Khoudary.

Amnesty confirmed that Khoudary had been a “short-term freelance contract worker” who helped document protests in Gaza last year, but said she no longer works for the organisation.

“We absolutely condemn arrests of individuals because of practising their right to peaceful expression and assembly,” said Saleh Hijazi, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East.

Former Human Rights Watch official Peter Bouckaert removed Khoudary from an online group and told her she should be “ashamed” of herself.

UN Watch, a Geneva-based organisation originally set up to confront alleged anti-Semitism at the United Nations, however praised Aman as a “courageous Gaza peace activist”.

– Dialogue or not? –

Khoudary herself was detained by Hamas last year for posts supporting Gaza street protests.

Aman was briefly detained two years ago on similar charges.

Debate has flared on social networks, with some Palestinians condemning the latest arrests and others congratulating Khoudary for working against normalisation.

Collaborating or even communicating with Israelis is controversial among Palestinians, with many seeing such dialogue as a waste of time.

Others argue that shutting down dialogue makes a solution between the warring parties even more unlikely.

“Palestinian for the most part reject normalising activities because they contribute to a narrative that all that is needed is dialogue,” said Yara Hawari, senior policy fellow at the Al Shabaka Palestinian think-thank.

“In actuality what is needed before any kind of reconciliation process is an end to the continuous and structural violence — which in this case is the violent Israeli military occupation.”

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In Palestine, COVID-19 Meets the Israeli Occupation

The first measures taken against COVID-19 in the West Bank occurred in early March after the confirmation of seven cases in Bethlehem that were linked to a Greek tourist group. The Palestinian Authority (PA) declared a state of emergency and imposed a lockdown on the city, banning all entry and exit as well as enforcing a curfew on residents. The PA also announced restrictions across the West Bank, including prohibitions on travel between governorates and the shuttering of public spaces and education facilities. On March 22, following a steady increase in cases, the PA declared a curfew. 1 

In the Gaza Strip, in mid-March Hamas authorities and UNRWA began converting schools into quarantine centers and clinics in preparation for a possible outbreak. On March 21, two Gazans returning from Pakistan tested positive for the virus and were immediately hospitalized. Twenty-nine people were identified to have come into contact with them and were placed in quarantine. 

At the time of writing, the total number of confirmed cases in the West Bank is 247 and 12 in Gaza. Although the figures are relatively low, the worry is that the limited amount of testing available means that the number of infected people is in fact much higher.

COVID-19 Meets the Occupation

The West Bank and Gaza Strip are confronting COVID-19 from a reality of Israeli military occupation, which weakens the ability of the Palestinian authorities and the Palestinian people to respond effectively to the deadly virus. While many health care systems around the world are struggling to deal with the pandemic, the 53-year occupation has seriously depleted medical capabilities in the West Bank and Gaza. The donor-dependent system has shortages in equipment, medication, and staff due to such issues as military raids and restrictions on imports. In the Gaza Strip in particular – deemed unliveable by the UN as a result of over 13 years of blockade and multiple wars – the health care system already struggled to deal with medical cases before the pandemic. Indeed, Gaza currently has only 78 ICU beds and 63 ventilators for a population of two million.


It is imperative to highlight the Israeli occupation as an instrument of comorbidity
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Meanwhile, daily manifestations of the occupation persist, such as the continued demolition of Palestinian homes and military raids on Palestinian villages and towns. There have also been direct Israeli attacks on Palestinian attempts to confront the virus, such as the destruction of a COVID 19 clinic in the Jordan Valley and the arrest of Palestinian volunteers attempting to distribute supplies to impoverished communities in East Jerusalem. The Israeli occupation authorities are also failing to take any preventative measures to protect Palestinian political prisoners, who are being illegally incarcerated within a military prison system that fails to meet even basic health and sanitation standards. 

Political Manipulations

The Israeli regime is using this global crisis not only to distract from its ongoing violations of human rights, but also as a political tool to gain diplomatic leverage. Indeed, international bodies have been commending Israel for its “cooperation” with the PA during this crisis; the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, called such coordination “excellent” during a recent speech. In reality, Israeli “cooperation” includes the Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) “allowing” a minimum of internationally-donated medical supplies to reach the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as was the case with a shipment of 3,000 tests and 50,000 masks from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the PA. This is far below the actual needs of the West Bank. 

Those commending the cooperation also point to the issue of the thousands of Palestinian workers in Israel. In an attempt to prevent mass movement and the potential spread of the disease, Israel and the PA reached an agreement that, as of March 18, conditioned Palestinian workers’ continued employment on them staying in Israel for several months rather than returning to the West Bank. Yet the workers were not only deprived of proper protective equipment; Israeli authorities reportedly dumped workers who they suspected of having the virus at checkpoint entrances to the West Bank without informing the PA. Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh reversed the decision on March 25, ordering the workers home. The worry is that the PA will not have the capacity to test people upon their return, and Israel has so far not offered to test them. 

Shifting the Narrative 

In effect, the Israeli regime, which maintains a violent military occupation and has depleted the capabilities of the Palestinian health care system, is being praised for allowing in tidbits of medical supplies from international actors, despite its responsibility under international law as an occupying power to provide the supplies itself. It is essential that international actors not only support vital humanitarian efforts for immediate medical relief in Palestine but that they also insist on Israel’s responsibility to finance Palestinian medical needs. 

It is also imperative to shift the narrative from cooperation and to highlight the Israeli occupation as an instrument of comorbidity. In other words, not only does the occupation exacerbate the conditions that increase Palestinians’ susceptibility to infection, it is also directly responsible for those conditions. It is therefore disingenuous to argue that now is the time for cooperation and dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian authorities to confront the pandemic. Now is the time, as it was before, to demand the lifting of the blockade on Gaza and the end of the military occupation of the West Bank. 

Notes:

  1. This policy memo was produced with the support of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. The views expressed herein are those of the author and therefore do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung.

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Coronavirus in Palestine: Confronting the Vulnerability of Indigenous Bodies

The COVID-19 pandemic has reached Palestine, and in doing so has brought to the surface latent power structures that render Palestinians particularly exposed to the virus.

In this policy lab, host Nur Arafeh speaks with analysts Yara Asi and Osama Tanous about the Palestinian health system’s capacity to handle a pandemic, the myths of Gaza’s exceptionalism, and the ways in which Israel’s settler-colonial project has re-shaped Palestinian bodies, as well as their nutrition and surrounding environments, to render them most vulnerable to health crises such as this.

 

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COVID-19, Government Responses & Human Rights Defenders

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the globe, and communities seek to protect themselves however they can, governments are being challenged to respond. While the vast majority of governments have not done well in initial responses, some have been transparent, direct and engaged with their citizens – and the global community. Others, particularly those with authoritarian features or tendencies, are engaged in responding to the crisis that puts political and economic interests out front, crafting policy and decree accordingly. The declaration of emergency rule in too many countries only solidifies what was already there in practice, and leaves many people scared not only of the virus itself, but what may come next when life returns to what we now call normal.

Human rights defenders are responding to these challenges, as they always do – by working hard, reaching out to their communities, identifying those who are struggling or are in need or who have been left out, and trying to help. They are calling out government abuse and excess and finding new ways to communicate with each other and the outside world to challenge power.

Today, Front Line Defenders relaunches its ‘Rights on the Line’ podcast, to offer another platform for the voices, perspectives and experiences of human rights defenders at risk and leading struggles for the health, wellbeing and rights of their communities.

In this episode, Front Line Defenders speaks to Al-Shabaka’s Senior Policy Fellow Yara Hawari from Palestine about the consequences of the pandemic for a population under military occupation:

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It’s Time to Reclaim UNRWA

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) recently launched an appeal for $14 million in anticipation of a coronavirus outbreak in Palestinian refugee camps. It’s an indication of the dire financial straits the agency is in, particularly since the US – once its major donor – cut its annual $360 million donation in August 2018.  

No account can truly capture the increasing suffering those cuts brought on. In the Gaza Strip, for instance – one of the most densely populated places in the world – some 1.4 million out of 2 million people are refugees, and 80% of them depend on humanitarian assistance for their sustenance and livelihood. The cuts have reduced key services, from healthcare to education, accelerating Gaza’s descent into a terrifying dystopia. 

New Cuts, Same Policy

Though the 2018 US decision caused an “historical shortfall” in UNRWA’s budget, it did not signal a fundamental shift in US policy. Rather, it represented an upsurge in an ongoing US-Israeli strategy to weaken and ultimately dismantle the agency. Instead of serving as a means to integrate refugees, as was originally intended by Western powers, over the decades UNRWA emerged as a symbol of the Palestinian refugee predicament and a substitute welfare state-in-exile. This is why the agency’s wings are being clipped and its programs targeted. 

Over time, and particularly since the Oslo Accords, Israel and the US have aimed to destroy UNRWA’s cultural ethos as it pertains to a collective sense of Palestinian national belonging. They have also worked to drive a wedge between the refugees and the agency, expand monitoring mechanisms to scrutinize and control the agency’s programs as well as its staff, and diminish its standing regionally and internationally. 

For years, Israeli lobby groups have pushed Western states to suspend their funding to UNRWA, accusing the agency of anti-Semitism, corruption, and having links to terrorism. 1 Donor states such as Canada have responded by conditioning funding on “reform” programs and stricter monitoring procedures. UNRWA usually complies with such demands to secure funding. 

Also in response to these pressures, UNRWA has increasingly highlighted concepts such as neutrality, human rights, human development, protection, and gender to emphasize individual and social rights while prohibiting expressions of what it defines as “political.” Former employees of the agency have relayed to this author that warnings and layoffs have occurred in recent years due to employees not expressing themselves “neutrally.” Staff have also been asked to remove pre-1948 Palestinian maps from textbooks and UNRWA facilities, and have experienced monitoring over programs to ensure they contain no criticism of Israel or Zionism.


Palestinians whose voices have been marginalized for too long, especially refugees and the poor, must be encouraged to participate in efforts to reclaim UNRWA
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The separation of the individual from the collective, and defining Palestinian national belonging as a political act that transgresses the agency’s humanitarian mandate, mutes demands for Palestinians’ collective rights. The agency also stresses infrastructural camp improvements and microfinance programs, which are even more clearly linked to a long-term strategy to integrate and resettle refugees rather than empower them and ultimately enable them to implement the right of return.

In Jordan, for example, effective, community-based, and genuinely participatory programs, especially those from the mid-to-late 1980s, have fizzled out and their remnants handed over to the Jordanian state or even contracted out to international organizations. These include the Women’s Program Centers, Youth Programs, and the Community-Based Rehabilitation Program for Persons with Disabilities. These centers served local communities while fostering and protecting Palestinian cultural life and collective identity. 

Pushing Back 

The US’s defunding of UNRWA and the agency’s disempowering “reforms” reflect the political environment shored up by the Trump administration’s policies, including the “Deal of the Century” and support for Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem, much of the West Bank, and Syria’s Golan Heights. Trump has even decided there are no Palestinians in Jerusalem, only “Arabs” and non-Israelis. This has implications for UNRWA’s operations, because if there are no Palestinians in Jerusalem, there are no Palestinian refugees for whom to provide services. Such a narrative creates a situation more conducive to the threat of a US and Israeli campaign, likely backed by supporters such as Saudi Arabia, to annul UN Resolution 194 (III)

Yet such imperialist outcomes are not inevitable; they can be defeated if there is a strategy. In particular, those Palestinians whose voices have been marginalized and silenced for too long, especially refugees and the poor, must be encouraged to participate in collective efforts to reclaim UNRWA: 

  • Palestinians in civil society organizations, political parties, and right of return committees must take UNRWA back from those who attempt to instrumentalize it as a mechanism for integration or resettlement. This means mobilizing refugees and UNRWA’s refugee-employees to better coordinate campaigns calling attention to the fact that the agency’s mandate is to provide refugees with humanitarian services until such a time as a just durable political solution has been reached that includes repatriation as an option.
  • Legal centers and experts in international law should develop a unified strategy to intervene in international fora to preempt anti-UNRWA campaigns. 
  • Palestinian progressive forces and right of return committees and campaigns must consolidate efforts to counter malicious rumors and ideas about UNRWA. 
  • Palestinians should oppose donor-imposed conditions on UNRWA that violate refugee rights, such as the rights of refugee children to learn in UNRWA-run schools about their pre-1948 histories and about their inalienable rights, such as the right of return. 
  • Palestinians must also question more thoroughly why so much UNRWA funding goes into “neutrality” or “human rights” workshops, as well as “monitoring,” and should work to change this use of funding to address the fact that many refugee families are in dire need of such resources for basic health or relief services. 

Notes:

  1. See, for example, one of the more recent attempts by B’nai B’rith Canada calling for suspending funding to the agency due to “corruption.”

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