Israelis and Arabs accuse one another of exploiting coronavirus for political gain in Jerusalem

The Dome of the Rock Mosque in the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, and the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, are seen in Jerusalem's Old City, Friday, April 10, 2020.


By STEVE HENDRIX, RUTH EGLASH, AND SUFIAN TAHA | The Washington Post | Published: April 11, 2020

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JERUSALEM — The arrival of coronavirus has brought no pause in tensions between Israelis and Palestinians in the eastern neighborhoods of this contested city, where both sides of the conflict accuse the other of using the pandemic to advance their political purposes.

Some Palestinians complain that Israeli officials, who provide health and police services in East Jerusalem, have been slow to offer virus testing and Arabic-language information in this part of the city and, in some cases, have thwarted the Arabs' own efforts to respond to the outbreak.

Israeli officials, in turn, contend the Palestinian Authority, which governs the adjacent West Bank, is exploiting the outbreak to meddle in Jerusalem's Arab neighborhoods.

The acrimony belies corona-cooperation in other areas, where Israeli and Palestinian agencies have worked together to distribute testing kits and control movement of people in the West Bank and facilitated the passage of critical supplies into Gaza.

But tensions in Jerusalem threaten to mar what both Israel and the Palestinian Authority increasingly see as successful efforts to prevent the high death counts suffered by some countries.

Beleaguered residents of East Jerusalem neighborhoods say they are caught in the war of words between the two sides, and not for the first time.

"Everybody wants to control us but nobody wants to help us," said a young Palestinian man sitting on a car hood in the impoverished ridge-top neighborhood of Jabal Mukaber on a recent afternoon. He would only give his first name, Abdel, because he feared reprisals from both governments. "We fall in the middle."

The most recent flare-up of tensions began early in the outbreak when Israeli and Palestinian activists criticized the Israeli Ministry of Health for failing to provide covid-19 information in Arabic, the first language of Palestinians who make up about 20 percent of Israel's population.

The ministry increased its Arabic updates soon after a legal advocacy group documented the lack of timely Arabic updates on its website in early March and has since instituted dedicated Arabic briefings on social media and television.

There is little indication that East Jerusalem is harboring a significant outbreak. The health ministry's official map of coronavirus cases showed only two incidents of infection last week in the city's Arab sections. But health experts warn the low count could reflect a lack of testing.

Israel has established a number of drive-through testing centers around the country, including one in West Jerusalem. While Palestinian residents are free to travel about the city, many are reluctant to venture into Jewish sections, and local leaders called for a center to be added in East Jerusalem.

"I ask the residents of East Jerusalem to be patient, be understanding," Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion said to local media in early April, announcing that the health ministry was looking for a testing location in their part of the city.

A center opened adjacent to a United Nations compound in Jabal Mukaber on April 3. But two other Palestinian neighborhoods, located on the West Bank side of the concrete security barrier that winds through Jerusalem, remain cut off, leaving some 150,000 Jerusalem residents without practical access to testing.

"There are many elderly people, women and children who need to pass through a checkpoint to reach Jerusalem and the existing test center," said Suhad Bishara, an attorney with Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, which this week petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to make testing available to those city residents.

Israeli officials said they were committed to delivering coronavirus services equitably to all parts of Jerusalem. Any lag in the Arab parts of the city, they contend, was only due to the frantic pace of mounting an unprecedented emergency response.

"Israel looks at the entire area as one epidemiological territory," said Minister for Public Security Gilad Erdan. "The virus does not distinguish between Jews and others."

Jerusalem's deputy mayor, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, said coronavirus projects were now operating in all quarters of the city, including Arab neighborhoods, delivering food and essential items to those in need. She said the city, together with the health ministry and the army, have set up five quarantine hotels, including one in Jabal Mukaber.

"We are trying to identify the sick," Hassan-Nahoum said. "A test center was set up last Thursday, and we have been testing around 300 people a day. We want to get the number of people being tested each day up to 1,000."

In Jerusalem, rising pandemic tensions reflect the broader, decades-long tug of war between Israel and the Palestinian Authority for influence and control over the Palestinian communities of the city.

Israel views Jerusalem as its "eternal, undivided capital" and sees any challenge to Israeli authority - in any part of the city - as illegal. Palestinians likewise view the city's eastern section, occupied by Israel since the 1967 war, as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Even as some Arab residents have sought to engage more closely with Israel's economic and political systems, learning Hebrew and seeking more funding for their neighborhoods, Palestinian officials work to draw them closer to the West Bank.

"Both sides are accusing the other trying to use the crisis to change the status quo in Jerusalem," said Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.

In recent days, Israeli police arrested two Palestinian Authority officials on charges of promoting their government's interests in Jerusalem, banned by Israel within the city itself. Police said the two officials - the Palestinian Minister for Jerusalem affairs Fadi al-Hadami and Jerusalem Gov. Adnan Ghaith - were detained for carrying out political activities on behalf of a foreign entity.

"The Palestinian Authority wants to take over in parts of Jerusalem, but the law in Israel says it is illegal for any foreign entity to act under Israeli sovereignty without permission," Erdan said.

Al-Hadami said he was detained for appearing on Palestinian television to advise East Jerusalemites to stay home and take precautions.

"They wanted me to put on a face mask, but I could tell it was used," he said of his arrest. "There were drops of blood on it."

Israeli Police Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld denied that al-Hadami was given a dirty face mask.

Fouad Halaak, a policy adviser to Palestinian Fatah party who lives in East Jerusalem, said groups he helped organize were blocked by police when they tried to disinfect areas around mosques and churches in Jerusalem's Old City on April 3.

"Israel is preventing all of our activities related to the coronavirus," Halaak said.

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