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Israeli officials fear virus spread in E. Jerusalem areas past security barrier

Arab neighborhoods such as Kafr Aqab and Shuafat Refugee Camp, home to over 150,000 people in total, pose complex challenges, even as testing rises in rest of city’s eastern side

Magen David Adom medical workers seen at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, alongside the security barrier outside Shuafat Refugee Camp, Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Magen David Adom medical workers seen at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, alongside the security barrier outside Shuafat Refugee Camp, Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli officials are concerned at the prospect of COVID-19 spreading in the handful of Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem that are formally considered part of municipal Jerusalem but are located on the far side of the West Bank security barrier.

Areas such as Kafr Aqab, home to some 60-70,000, and Shuafat Refugee Camp, home to some 80,000, constitute a serious challenge, officials said, acknowledging that because of their complex location, they have not been receiving sufficient services in the battle against the pandemic.

Kafr Aqab is Jerusalem’s most northern neighborhood, located some 10 kilometers from the city center, and long has suffered from poor planning, inadequate public infrastructure and rampant lawlessness. The Shuafat camp is the only refugee camp inside Jerusalem, and the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) is formally responsible for health care there. Adjacent neighborhoods such as Ras Khamis, also on the far side of the barrier, are formally under the municipality’s auspices.

The officials said they were particularly concerned that the month-long Ramadan, with its day-long fasts and evening meals, could exacerbate the spread of the virus in such neighborhoods.

An unpaved road in central Kafr Aqab on May 1, 2019. (Adam Rasgon/Times of Israel)

The concern over a spread of infection during Ramadan applies to all of East Jerusalem, and the entire Arab Israeli populace, the officials said, but the Jerusalem neighborhoods in the twilight zone beyond the barrier are most at risk.

On Saturday morning, East Jerusalem recorded its first confirmed fatality from COVID-19, with the death of a 78-year-old woman named locally as Nawal Abu Hummus. She died at Jerusalem’s Shaare Tzedek Medical Center and was said to have suffered from preexisting conditions.

According to the Israeli Health Ministry, dozens of cases of the virus have been recorded in East Jerusalem, where many residents live in densely populated neighborhoods and tight living quarters.

Magen David Adom medical workers seen at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, alongside the security barrier outside Shuafat Refugee Camp, Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Kan public broadcaster reported Thursday that some Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem were likely to be placed under lockdown, following an increase in infection rates. Kan said that Silwan and Ras al-Amud were among the neighborhoods facing closures.

The Arab Israeli communities of Deir al-Asad and Bi’ina became a “restricted area” on Saturday morning amid fears of a coronavirus outbreak in the area.

A view of the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan on December 3, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

East Jerusalem hospital officials have expressed concerns about a possible increase in the number of confirmed cases of coronavirus, as medical authorities ramp up testing of Palestinians in the area.

But the Israel Police closed down a makeshift coronavirus testing clinic in East Jerusalem because it was operating under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, according to a report Wednesday.

The clinic was set up Tuesday next to a mosque in the Silwan neighborhood of the capital and carried out tests until the early evening, the Haaretz newspaper reported. However, later that night police arrived and arrested four people running the clinic.

Magen David Adom medical workers wearing full protective clothing test people at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing, at the entrance to the East Jerusalem village of Jabel Mukaber, on April 5, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Public Security Ministry said in a statement: “All activity by the Palestinian Authority in Israeli territory that is not coordinated and approved by authorities is prohibited under law and the police must prevent it.”

Israel extended sovereignty to East Jerusalem after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 war, though Palestinians want it as the capital of a future state.

A total of 81 people have tested positive for coronavirus in East Jerusalem, according to the PA health ministry. Israel recently doubled the number of its screening centers in Palestinian neighborhoods of the city from three to six following a petition to the supreme court by a human rights group.

Palestinian officials allege East Jerusalem’s Arab populace has been overlooked by Israel.

“Our goal is to provide aid to the people of East Jerusalem who are intentionally being neglected” by Israel, Fadi al-Hadami, the Palestinian government’s minister for Jerusalem affairs, told AFP. But meetings with “hospital doctors in Jerusalem, interviews with media calling on people to stay at home to fight corona[virus] — they [Israel] consider these things violations,” he complained.

View of the security barrier and Shuafat Refugee Camp, northeast of Jerusalem, on December 5, 2019. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Earlier this month, Hadami and Adnan Ghaith, the Palestinians’ governor of Jerusalem, were detained by Israeli authorities amid their on-the-ground response to the coronavirus crisis. Both men were released within 24 hours.

The detention of the senior Palestinian officials this month was nothing new — Ghaith has been arrested seven times in two years, Hadami four times.

But this time, the men said, they were not asked about political activities but their work spreading awareness about the coronavirus among Palestinians in Jerusalem.

For Amal Jamal, a political scientist at Tel Aviv University, “on the one hand, Israel neglects the Palestinian part of the city and does not invest in it. On the other, it wants loyalty from the Palestinian population.”

Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion, meanwhile, welcomed the opening of the new clinics in the city’s eastern sector.

And a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted Israel was supplying equipment and training to the Palestinian Authority to help deal with the crisis.

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