‘I’ve no idea how we’ll survive’: Pandemic pushes Palestinians into poverty

As the COVID-19 crisis wears on, Palestinians in the West Bank are struggling to make ends meet — and some local governors are taking matters into their own hands.

Palestinian workers from Hebron carry personal belongings as they cross through a hole in the Israeli security fence, after entrance into Israel was banned following the spread of the coronavirus, near the West Bank city of Hebron, March 22, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian workers from Hebron carry personal belongings as they cross through a hole in the Israeli security fence, after entrance into Israel was banned following the spread of the coronavirus, near the West Bank city of Hebron, March 22, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

It seemed, during the first wave of the new coronavirus pandemic, as if the Palestinian Authority was handling the situation better than Israel, and that the Palestinian public in the occupied territories had renewed faith in their institutions. Now, however, that faith has collapsed entirely. Hit by internal divisions, growing economic hardship, and the second wave of COVID-19, the PA appears to have lost control. 

Poverty, hunger, and the raging virus have driven Palestinians in the occupied West Bank into frustration and uncertainty, with many of them now unemployed and bereft of any financial support. Growing numbers are reliant on food assistance.

The sense of dismay quickly moved from the street to the Palestinian district governors in the West Bank, four out of 11 of whom decided to stop listening to government orders and keep businesses open. They have directed their residents to open restaurants, cafes, and stores while stressing the importance of face masks and social distancing.

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Restrictions on large public events, such as weddings and funerals, are still in place, with one prominent wedding singer recently arrested in the Hebron area after participating in an event. 

Fearing hunger more than the virus

Hani al-Masri, a journalist, investigator, and manager of Masarat, the Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, says that the PA’s failure to get a grip on the second wave of the pandemic is down to “a lack of planning and thinking.” 

“They didn’t really assess their abilities or what the people are capable of,” al-Masri says. The PA’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak resembled that of the rest of the world, despite its relative lack of resources, he explains. 

“In the wave of euphoria over ‘beating the coronavirus,’ they forgot that they’re living under occupation,” al-Masri continues. “They wanted to act like Europe, like countries that have the money to pay people who are sitting at home.”

Palestinian medical employees disinfect Palestinian workers who came back from working in Israel at the entrance to the West Bank village of Hussan, to stop the spread of the coronavirus. March 29, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Palestinian medical employees disinfect Palestinian workers who came back from working in Israel at the entrance to the West Bank village of Hussan, to stop the spread of the coronavirus. March 29, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The initial lockdown orders gave the impression that the PA was in control and in the know, and it initially paid off — only five people died during the first wave of the pandemic. But people started pushing back on the strict quarantine conditions, and it became harder to keep people under curfew, al-Masri says. The governor of Ramallah, for example, “decided to open despite the [PA’s] orders, and other districts followed suit.”

These political disputes, and the government’s decision to blame its subjects for the renewed spread of the virus, dented Palestinians’ confidence in their institutions, according to al-Masri. Now, the situation has deteriorated to the point where Palestinians in the West Bank “fear an epidemic of hunger more than the coronavirus.”

Jenin Governor Akram al-Rajoub believes that locking down the entire West Bank from the start, when the virus’ spread appeared to be concentrated in Bethlehem, was a mistake. 

“We drove everyone to the edge. After 10 days we needed to make a decision and not act out of fear,” he says. “I think now we need to open, and at the same time deal with the virus and educate people on how to protect themselves from it. We currently have 102 cases [of coronavirus] in our district, which is not a lot.”

Rajoub was pleased with the renewed connection between the PA and the Palestinian people in the early days of the crisis. That period, he says, was “the first time since the PA’s establishment that residents valued, respected, and trusted us.”

Yet he, too, acknowledges the breakdown in relations that has since taken place, pointing to the PA’s flawed policies and cycles of lockdown and reopening as the key driver of the deterioration.

“You can’t trust only the recommendations of the coronavirus committee,” Rajoub says. “They’re distinguished people, but they sit in air-conditioned offices far away from it all. Once they continued with the same policies, without considering people’s economic circumstances, people lost faith.”

A lack of communication also appears to be at fault, according to Rajoub, who says that the PA should hold weekly meetings to discuss people’s needs — including food — and follow up with a press conference in order to communicate any developments. 

Jabareen Bakri, the governor of Hebron, is another of the four governors opposing the PA’s lockdown orders. He says that Hebron took a bigger economic hit than other West Bank areas due to its reliance on export and manufacturing, so he ordered the city to remain open with restricted hours and safety precautions.

There are currently 8,465 COVID-19 cases in the West Bank, according to the PA. Eighty-four people have died so far, 50 of them in Hebron. 

When the PA had control over the crossings surrounding the Hebron Governorate, the number of infections remained lower, Bakri says. But when the Israeli military kept them away from these checkpoints, they “lost control” of the situation.

Cases increased further during Ramadan, when large numbers of visitors arrived from Jerusalem and from the Naqab/Negev, he adds. The district’s 50,000 laborers are not the main site of the growing infection rate, says Bakri, which he attributes to people continuing to hold weddings and funerals despite the ban. Such events, according to Bakri, are responsible for 80 percent of infections in the West Bank. 

Finances depleted

The rift between the governors and the rest of the PA government is mostly down to the worsening economic situation. The PA is itself in an unprecedented financial crisis, and the effects of the pandemic have hit hard in the West Bank and Gaza. In addition to being under occupation, Palestinians are contending with the fallout from the Trump administration’s decision to eliminate the United States’ contribution to UNRWA’s budget. 

Palestinian security forces guard the entrance to the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, June 28, 2020. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian security forces guard the entrance to the Balata refugee camp near the West Bank city of Nablus, June 28, 2020. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

“We need NIS 1.1 billion per month,” says PA Finance Ministry spokesperson Abdelrahman al-Bayatna. “We get around NIS 950 million: NIS 550 million from taxes Israel collects on behalf of the PA; NIS 100 million NIS from external grants, for example from Arab countries, the World Bank, the European Union, etc; and around NIS 300 million come from taxes within the West Bank.” 

Yet all three sources of funds have dried up considerably, al-Bayatna says. Since security coordination between Palestinian security forces and the Israeli army was halted three months ago, the PA also stopped accepting tax money from Israel, its main source of income. Furthermore, he adds, “income from taxes within the West Bank has decreased by around half, and donations from abroad have also gone down significantly.”

In July, for example, the PA received just NIS 280 million — 20 percent of its regular budget, al-Bayatna says.

Both the PA and the wider Palestinian population in the West Bank have also been hit hard by the drop in tourism, especially in Bethlehem.

Majed Ishaq, the vice president of the Palestinian Tourism Ministry, says that yearly income from the tourism industry used to be around a billion U.S. dollars, with 3.5 million tourists visiting the West Bank in 2018. Those earnings have declined precipitously since the start of the pandemic, with Ishaq putting losses at between $1.2 and $1.4 billion.

“The situation is worse than anyone can say,” he says. “There’s no tourism — not from abroad, not domestically, nor from Palestinians in Israel. Most hotels have fired almost all their staff.”

Ishaq says that of the more than 28,000 people who work in tourism in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, over 95 percent are currently unemployed. “Some have become street vendors, others are trying to secure permits to work on construction sites in Israel, and others are looking for work inside the West Bank,” he notes.

Ishaq adds that former tourism employees are subsisting on a bare minimum of water, rice, vegetables, and bread, and many students have had to interrupt their studies because they can’t afford tuition. The PA is also struggling to provide for everyone who requires support — its list of needy families has doubled since the start of the pandemic, Ishaq says.

A Palestinian police officer wears a mask to protect himself from coronavirus stands outside the closed Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 8, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
A Palestinian police officer wears a mask to protect himself from coronavirus stands outside the closed Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 8, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

‘It has been more than a month since we had dinner’

Fuad, a 34 year-old former hotel employee from Beit Jala, is currently unemployed. His wife, with whom Fuad has three children, also lost her job as a hairdresser because of the pandemic. 

“Our situation has deteriorated drastically,” says Fuad. “We have no savings, a mortgage, three young children. I’ve tried to find all kinds of work in the territories without success. Everyone is unemployed, and there’s no work.

“I tried to get a permit to work in Israel, but they asked me to pay $5,000. Where would I get that kind of money? My wife has started doing hairdressing at home for neighbors and family; it’s not much but it at least buys us some food.”

The one comfort, says Fuad, is that everyone is in the same situation. All the same, “I have no idea what I’ll do or how we will survive.”

R., 38, lives with his wife and five children in Askar refugee camp, next to Nablus in the northern West Bank. He worked in carpentry, but has been unemployed since the virus outbreak. 

“We’re starving,” he says. “At the start of the [crisis] we received food baskets from all sorts of organizations, and NIS 170 per month from the Welfare Office. Now most donations have stopped — no one has any money.

“One of my brothers, a school teacher, helped us a bit,” R. continued. “He would buy us vegetables and essentials. But he hasn’t been paid in three months — the PA has no money, and he can’t help me anymore. I have six sisters and three brothers, they are also barely making ends meet. Now during Eid [al-Adha], I can’t afford new clothes for my children, and I have nothing to feed them.

“The owner of the wood shop I used to work at fired me. We mostly did kitchens, closets and bedrooms. People today can’t afford to buy food, how will they have money for kitchen cabinets? He said, ‘Habibi, I’m sorry, but we have no jobs at the wood shop. I haven’t had a single client since the pandemic,’ and sent me home. I understand him, he is also struggling.

“I tried to find odd jobs. One day I worked in construction, I was paid NIS 70. Another day I fixed a bed and a broken sofa for someone, he paid me NIS 50. That’s it. I stopped smoking because I have no money for food, and it was difficult, because I started smoking at 15.

“I’m angry all the time, and feel great guilt. I cried in front of my daughter, and it broke me even more. I didn’t want to leave the room for several days, didn’t want to eat, could barely drink. I’m desperate, I don’t know what to do or how to keep going.

“I can’t look my children in their eyes. They are hungry. It has been more than a month since we had dinner, we have been living on two meals a day. We don’t even dream of eating meat, we forgot what that tastes like. My wife sold her wedding ring for NIS 230. We have nothing left to sell.

“There is a small shop in our neighborhood, we took some things from him and asked the owner to put it on our tab. He is a good person, but he also needs to make a living and stock up his shop. We are ashamed of going back to the shop, so we send our 7-year-old instead. Last time, my wife sent our son to get canned tomatoes that cost only a few cents, and the shop owner told him he can no longer give us groceries until we pay our tab.

“Just the thought of how heartbroken my wife and children are kills me. I don’t know what else I can do. Do I go out and rob shops and houses?”

Potential lifeline from Palestinians in Israel

Jenin’s governor Rajoub recognizes these worsening hardships. “We are talking today about basic survival, not any kind of balance. As soon as I put the city on lockdown, everyone takes a hit, and when we reopen people have no money to go shopping. They are buying less than half of what they used to, and some are purchasing at 10 percent of what they would before.”

Hebron’s governor Bakri said there is no hunger in the city, since the wealthy and business owners have donated NIS 90 million. “There is poverty, but nobody is sleeping on an empty stomach.” Besides, he added, there is a group of volunteers who cook and deliver meals to the needy, and who gave out 15,000 meals during Ramadan.

Ishaq from the Tourism Ministry views Palestinian citizens of Israel as a lifeline for the industry. “It is clear that there will be no tourists from abroad at least until the end of the year, and we are counting on our Palestinian brothers and sisters inside Israel to save us. We expect them to come en masse to our hotels and restaurants in the occupied territories. There is a lot to do here. We are working on a new marketing video to encourage our Palestinian brothers and sisters to vacation in the territories. About 10 percent of our income before the pandemic was from Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

Rajib is also convinced that Palestinians from Israel can be a central source of income that could save his district during the crisis. “We opened the city for the holiday. Since the lockdown, and since Israel has closed off the Al-Jalama checkpoint, no Palestinian citizen of Israel has entered Jenin. It has had a huge toll on our economy, they were a vital source of income.

“Today, we are making zero money,” Rajib continues. “Not only at the market but also restaurants — entire families would come, shop, eat at a restaurant, and go home. They fixed their cars, got dental care, got hair cuts, even did their dry cleaning here. They would buy everything: food products, clothes and shoes, furniture and construction materials, even get their pictures framed. I don’t have an exact estimation, but we are talking about millions [of shekels] a month. I can say with confidence that Jenin’s economy relied on Palestinian citizens of Israel.”

A version of this article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.