COVID-19 and Palestine's "new normal"

By Ameera Al-Rajabi

The 1967 Nakba and what followed was a further disaster for the Palestinian people when Israel took control over the West Bank and Gaza Strip. More than 300,000 Palestinians were forced from their homes and a large number displaced outside of the country. The Palestinians who remained not only lived under great oppression but also witnessed the building of Israeli settlements across their land.

Al-Khalil (Hebron) in the south of the West Bank was targeted by the Israeli occupation. They began by building settlements on the outskirts of the city but the most important target was the heart of the city.

Israel built the first settlement of Kiryat Arbaa in Al-Khalil in 1972. From here, the Israeli army began to penetrate the city. Israel’s main goal was to occupy the Old City of Al Khalil and the Ibrahimi Mosque situated within the heart of the Old City.

In 1997, following the signing of the Hebron Agreement (part of the Oslo Accord) between the Palestine Liberation Organization and the Israeli government, Al Khalil was divided into the following two areas: H1 area that is under Palestinian control and the H2 area that is under the control of the Israeli occupation.

The H2 area has become like a large open-air prison, surrounded by 21 checkpoints. Ten of the checkpoints operate 24 hours per day but can be closed at any time without notice and remain closed overnight.  Passing through any of these checkpoints subjects Palestinians to humiliating laws set by the occupation army including identity checks, body searches, and bag searches. If a Palestinian does not immediately comply with these laws they are punished.

The Palestinian people at times through different actions have tried to express their rejection of these infringements on their human rights and freedom of movement. One of the common actions is throwing stones at the checkpoints usually by male children and youth who, in turn, are met by the Israeli military firing numerous rounds of tear gas and sound grenades and carrying out arrests. On occasions the Israeli soldiers shoot live fire, resulting in death.

Gradually, over a period of 23 years, the abnormality of daily arrests, house searches, displacement, bullets and tear gas became the norm for residents of the area and for the youth who were born into this reality.

The presence of checkpoints that impede the movement of residents, the constant presence of soldiers in the neighbourhood, the sound of bullets, and the arrests of children are no longer unexpected things, but rather daily occurrences. So much so that some Palestinians take out their identity cards to pass through the checkpoint without being asked to do so.

As COVID-19 swept the world and into Palestine, the ‘normal’ situation drastically changed. It felt strange to the region. It did not stop the occupation, but the activity of the Israeli army and their dehumanising actions did decrease. The number of arrests, firing of tear gas and sound grenades in the mornings have decreased. The community is surprised by the Israeli soldiers who aren’t firing tear gas or skunk water at the children when they throw stones. They are surprised at the amount of time that has passed without any arrests, especially of children, or soldier’s provocation of local residents.

The absence of any checkpoints, the absence of killing or arrest, of children being able to go schools in the morning without harm or being searched, of being able to travel by car to any place in the city without being stopped and prevented from passing through the checkpoints, all of these simple rights have become mere dreams for the Palestinian people who have hope that one day they will become reality.

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