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March 27, 2020
- Exploiting COVID-19: Israel Reportedly Wants to Close off Shufat Refugee Camp from Jerusalem
- Exploiting COVID-19: Escalating Pressure in Issawiya
- Under Cover of COVID-19: Israel De Facto Annexation & Settler Violence Continue
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As Israel continues to roll out increasingly severe restrictions on movement in its response to the COVID-19 health crisis, reports suggest that the Prime Minister’s Office and the National Security Council are working on a plan to close off the Shufat Refugee Camp from the rest of Jerusalem. The Shufat Refugee Camp, home to tens of thousands of Palestinians who hold Israeli residency cards, is located within the expanded municipal border of Jerusalem, but on the West Bank side of the Israeli separation barrier. The camp has a single entrance/exit, controlled by an Israeli military checkpoint, through which residents must pass in order to access other areas of Jerusalem. It is this checkpoint that some Israeli authorities are now reportedly seeking to close.
This effort aligns neatly with past and current initiatives — including the various Greater Jerusalem bills seen in 2017 and 2018, as well as the Trump Plan (see FMEP’s annexation policy tables for comprehensive tracking) — that seek to re-draw Jerusalem’s borders in a manner that excises the Shufat Refugee Camp (and other unwanted Palestinian areas) from Jerusalem. Exploiting the fog of fear around the COVID-19 crisis in order to accomplish this goal represents a new approach to achieving this same goal. Ir Amim provides important additional framing:
“The Israeli government’s attempt to close these checkpoints should be seen within the larger political context of longstanding Israeli policy and plans to ultimately sever these neighborhoods off from the rest of Jerusalem. In 2015, Prime Minister Netanyahu proposed the idea of revoking Israeli residency status from the population living in the NBB. Likewise, in 2018 the government attempted to amend the “Basic Law: Jerusalem, Capital of Israel” in order to redraw the municipal boundaries of the city so as to formally disconnect neighborhoods beyond the barrier from the city – a move which was blocked at the last minute. Most recently, Trump’s Plan, designed in close coordination with the Israeli government, asserted that the Separation Barrier would mark the new Jerusalem municipal border and that the neighborhoods beyond the barrier would be transferred to the responsibility of a Palestinian government and constitute part of a future Palestinian capital. A decision by the Israeli government to disconnect these neighborhoods from Jerusalem through closure of the checkpoints under the guise of measures to combat the spread of the Coronavirus would be one step forward in the implementation of Trump’s plan and in line with persistent Israeli plans and proposals pertaining to these neighborhoods.”
In response to the reports, the Israeli human rights group HaMoked sent a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu threatening to petition the High Court of Justice if the Shufat Refugee Camp checkpoint is closed. A press release accompanying the letter says:
“HaMoked raised the concern that extraneous considerations were behind this plan and that it was in effect a plan to relinquish the health and safety of the population living in these neighborhood, given the lack of any indication that the state was also making plans to protect the lives and health of those living in these neighborhoods. HaMoked also noted that there seemed to be a dual and unacceptable motivation to continue benefiting from the crucial work of people from these neighborhoods in the vital facilities and businesses that must now operate optimally – including hospitals, pharmacies, the municipal sanitation department, food manufacturers and supermarkets; and at the same time to ignore and even abandon all the others living in these same neighborhoods. Moreover. Movement into and out of the West Bank is not restricted for the Jewish population living in the settlements there.”
B’Tselem reports that Israeli police have escalated their ongoing, highly militarized policing campaign in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya (reminder: under the Trump plan, Issawiya would be Israeli territory). B’Tselem writes:
“The police abuse of Palestinians in al-’Esawiyah, by now a permanent feature of life in the neighborhood, is illegal and cannot be justified even under the usual routine of occupation. Yet at this sensitive time, such conduct exposes residents to substantial, completely unnecessary health risks, as it encourages gatherings and forces arrested residents, including many minors, to leave home and be around strangers. The police conduct is jeopardizing public safety (including the health of the police officers) and violating the medical guidelines on social isolation. The fact that Israeli authorities disregard the lives of al-’Esawiyah residents, including children and teens, is nothing new. Yet continuing and even escalating such conduct during a pandemic is an especially appalling manifestation of this policy.”
Ir Amim says:
“Despite the COVID-19 crisis and the government’s imposition of stringent restrictions and social distancing to curb the spread of the virus, there has been heightened police and para-military presence in the heart of the community’s residential areas. This has not only generated acute friction as in the past, but due to the unique circumstances concerning the Coronavirus, the stark increase in police presence and operations in close quarters has induced extreme anxiety and apprehension among the neighborhood’s residents. Among the various measures which the police have employed over the past few weeks include: arbitrary detainment of residents for the purpose of identification and/or body searches, mandatory closure of businesses, search and arrests, and the imposition of roadblocks and restrictions on movement within the neighborhood as well as along its main entrances.
“Since March 7, there has been a palpable escalation in police activity and harassment marked by incidents of police brutality and violent altercations with the residents. One attorney representing the detained individuals estimates that 15-20 community members, many of them minors, have been arrested since then. The raids are often accompanied by indiscriminate use of tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets and physical assault in densely populated residential areas. Moreover, the presence of a large contingent of police forces without the necessary protective gear in close proximity to residents constitutes a violation of the Israeli Ministry of Health regulations to stem the potential spread and contraction of the Coronavirus.”
Ynet reports that the Israeli military is preparing to enforce a complete closure of all West Bank checkpoints, a scenario which – if implemented – will trap Palestinians, but not Israeli settlers who do not have to use the checkpoint systems. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority – working in close coordination – have already announced severe restrictions on the West Bank, which is currently under orders from the PA to confine at home for 14 days.
These restrictions, however, have not put a stop on Israel’s de facto annexation of West Bank land. B’Tselem reports that on March 26th, with the COVID-19 crisis gaining more urgency every day, Israeli forces demolished a make-shift Palestinian health clinic in the Palestinian community of Khirbet Ibziq, located in the northern Jordan Valley. The forces also consfiscated building materials devoted to building the clinic. B’Tselem writes:
“As the whole world battles an unprecedented and paralyzing healthcare crisis, Israel’s military is devoting time and resources to harassing the most vulnerable Palestinian communities in the West Bank, that Israel has attempted to drive out of the area for decades. Shutting down a first-aid community initiative during a health crisis is an especially cruel example of the regular abuse inflicted on these communities, and it goes against basic human and humanitarian principles during an emergency. Unlike Israel’s policies, this pandemic does not discriminate based on nationality, ethnicity or religion. It is high time the government and military acknowledged that now, of all times, Israel is responsible for the health and wellbeing of the five million Palestinians who live under its control in the Occupied Territories.”
The restrictions on West Bank movement have also failed to stop violent attacks that settlers regularly perpetrate against Palestinians and their crops, flocks, and property. In recent days, there have been reports of numerous such attacks. Israel NGO Yesh Din has documented several violent incidents committed by Israeli settlers or soldiers against Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including a series of violent settler attacks near Nablus (examples, with photos, here and here).
PLO Spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi said added another layer of de facto annexation, saying:
“As the international community seeks to cooperate in combating the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Israel is exploiting the situation to expedite de facto annexation of Palestinian land while providing protection and cover to armed Israeli settlers in their terror attacks against defenseless Palestinian communities across the occupied West Bank. Most recently, Israeli settlers have repeatedly raided Mount Al-Orma near Nablus in an attempt to take over the area with the active participation of the Israeli army. The Palestinians of Beita-Nablus have faced repeated assaults with courage and determination despite the great cost and suffering they have endured.”