Question #1: Current Measures
What are the current public health measures in place in response to the pandemic?
Following the confirmed cases of COVID-19 of Greek tourists who stayed in a hotel in Beit Jala, the government locked down the entire governorate of Bethlehem forbidding movement within the governorate, between the cities, and between the central cities and the surrounding villages and refugee camps. All staff of the hotel were put in quarantine in the same hotel – some of which were found to have caught the virus.
The authority has declared some hotels to be under its direct control for the purpose of quarantines in each governorates. Some hospitals were closed to regular patients and were instead dedicated to deal with those cases infected by the virus. In Gaza there few cases too.
The next step was closing the main borders of the West Bank – the Allenby Bridge. In coordination with Jordan and of course Israel which controls the borders, Allenby bridge was closed in both directions. Israel controls unilaterally those who can cross Ben Gurion – some of which have domicile in areas under the Palestinian Authority control.
People who crossed the bridge before or came through Israeli Ben Gurion airport were first asked to self-quarantine. In later stage, those who crossed through Allenby bridge, or through the Rafah Crossing in Gaza, where subject to quarantine in the areas prepared by the authorities, mostly around the two crossing points or in hotels in each governorate where cases where distributed according to criteria set forward by the authorities.
As soon as March 4th, 2020, Palestine declared the state of Emergency for a month; later on, the state of emergency was renewed for another month – the maximum limit in the Basic Law for the state of emergency. It is unclear yet what will happen after the end of the second month.
Crossing between governorates was forbidden; movement within the same governorate was also restricted.
The PA took samples of tests on people who have been in contact with individuals who tested positive to the virus. They were also some random testing.
The main challenge is still the Palestinians workers in Israel. The PA asked all workers to return home and self-quarantine for 14 days. They were also tested by mobile testing clinic at the crossing points.
Image credit: Becca Siegel via Pexels.
Question #2: Constitutional Setup
What is the body with jurisdiction over public health in the country according to its constitution?
Matters of public health are the responsibility of the ministry of health. The minister of public health is part of a crisis committee, headed by the prime minister himself, to deal with the COVID-19 Crisis. The team includes also a person in charge of media coverage and communication.
Public health in Gaza Strip is the responsibility of the ministry of health there. There were some positive signs of increased coordination between the two bodies – which are de facto separated since 2007.
Issues of public health in Palestine are affected by decisions undertaken by Israeli authorities whether in Israel proper – which directly affects East Jerusalemites, under direct Israeli control, or in the occupied territories, especially in the areas under direct Israeli control, such as settlements and area C.
Question #3: Debate over Measures?
Has there been any debate over the measures taken?
At the beginning, there was a real enthusiasm within Palestinians about the preventive measures undertaken by the government since early days when cases started to appear in Palestine. But debate never stopped since then, including:
Whether there was a need for declaring the state of emergency when the existing laws makes it possible if need be to impose curfew or in limiting the movement of the Palestinians to the minimal necessary ones. Such debate intensified following the renewal for a second month of the state of emergency, clearly in contradiction with the procedures provided for in the Basic Law.
Concerning the way the government dealt with the Palestinians workers in Israel, first asking them within three days, to decide whether to go and stay in Israel (sleep overnight) or return and stay home. Later on the government called on all workers to return home, and to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Debate with regards to the measures undertaken by the Hamas officials in Gaza – where the state of emergency and the curfew was objected.
Debate concerning East Jerusalem and the kind of coordination needed with the Israeli authorities to make sure they receive the necessary medical assistance on the one side and ways the preventive measures undertaken by Palestine (but not in Israel, or at least not as soon as in Palestine) could be enforced in East Jerusalem too.
Debate surrounding the Palestinians’ prisoners who are under conditions that make their life in danger for possible contamination. For those prisoners released, there was debate surrounding the public events that accompanied their liberation and the need for them to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Debate concerning the economic repercussions of the measures undertaken and the way the government decided which economic activities to maintain and under which conditions.
Question #4: Conflicting Claims over Jurisdiction
Has the pandemic generated any conflicting claims over jurisdiction on matters of public health?
There were conflicting claims concerning the jurisdiction between West Bank Government under Mohammad Shtayyeh and Hamas authorities in Gaza, with regards to issues of public health. Although coordination is considered to be much better now under such public health crisis, the authorities in charge of the ministry of health in both areas are different and de facto under separate line of authority.
“Public health became a field for competing authorities over jurisdiction.”
The Israeli authorities also claim responsibility over East Jerusalemites – as Jerusalem makes part of the state of Israel since it was – illegally – annexed by Israel. As a result, information about cases of infected Palestinians in East Jerusalem is limited and the Palestinian capacity to deal with such cases is also restricted. There were cases where Israeli police closed clinics in Silwan because the COVID-19 testing kits were provided by the Palestinian Authority. Public health became a field for competing authorities over jurisdiction.
Israeli authorities also declare responsibility over Israeli citizens (settlers) in the West Bank and do not bear public health responsibilities towards Palestinian citizens.
“Restricting the movement to and from Gaza had to be accompanied by reviewing ways under which certain sick Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – such as certain cases of Cancer – for treatment in hospitals in Jerusalem or in Israel proper.”
There were debates also with regards to Israeli responsibilities under international humanitarian law towards Palestinians in Gaza, as Israel controls access to and from Gaza through Erez crossing. Restricting the movement to and from Gaza had to be accompanied by reviewing ways under which certain sick Palestinians in the Gaza Strip – such as certain cases of Cancer – for treatment in hospitals in Jerusalem or in Israel proper. There were even calls for upgrading certain hospitals in Gaza to be capable to treat those cancer cases or most of them.
In areas C – where Palestinians live but in reality, the Palestinian government has no official authority there – imposing restrictions necessary for halting the spread of the virus are an impossible mission. This is the case of Kofr Aqab for example, where many consider that area as ‘No Man’s Land’.
The Palestinian authority has limited capacity to impose such lock down measures, for its limited jurisdiction in areas B, and lack of jurisdiction in area C. Measures undertaken under such public health crisis were partially enforced as a result of the formation of voluntary committees from villages, refugee camps, and cities. The jurisdiction of those committees was questioned, especially because many consider those committees as being composed solely or at large part from Fatah affiliates.
There were cases – such as when in Kofr Aqab new cases of infected persons were found – the Fatah committee in the area, not the Palestinian government, declared the restrictive measures to be imposes.
Question #5: Overall Governance Debate
Has the pandemic generated a discussion over other governance arrangements in the country?
“Public health measures undertaken by the Palestinian government in response to the pandemic showed how fragile is the governance structure in Palestine.”
Public health measures undertaken by the Palestinian government in response to the pandemic showed how fragile is the governance structure in Palestine.
Debates over internal measures, including the declaration of state of emergency, continue as usual.
Instead the focus is being with time shifting towards the territorial fragmentation and the subsequent lack of continuity between Palestinian areas, territories, or cities; i.e. the lack of sovereign jurisdiction over the movement of the population and goods.
Such gaps in governance structures in Palestine are being increasingly considered as the main threat to public health and the real challenge the measures undertaken by the Palestinian government to control the spread of COVID-19 in the territories under its control.
Debate over public health matters in Palestine is being increasingly focused over those bearing responsibilities under international law which cannot be simplified as saying that the government of Palestine has the sole responsibility towards Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The way the public health crisis and the subsequent measures that involve closing academic institutions, businesses, etc. pose the question concerning the impact this will have in medium and long term on the society and most importantly on the economy. Such debate intensifies as a result of the fact that most economic and financial decisions are futile unless done in coordination with the Israeli authorities. The PA finance is also dependent on international aid and on the revenues of taxes from Israel – besides of course the income taxes. All sources of income being now affected by the crisis.