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Palestinians hunker down for Ramadan facing a virus that doesn't discriminate but an occupier that does

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Health Services are poor or non-existent in many Palestinian communities especially in dozens of Bedouin villages Israel has refused to recognise

As the holy fasting month of Ramadan begins, the coronavirus outbreak in Israel and the Palestinian territories is proving how inevitably intertwined the two populations' lives are, while also underlining the extreme differentials of power between them.

While 15,000 Israelis have tested positive for Covid-19 so far, the numbers infected in the occupied territories are still measured in the hundreds though that, in part, reflects the difficulties for Palestinians of getting tested. The Palestinian Authority is desperately short of equipment, including testing kits, to deal with the virus.

Research suggests that most infections of Palestinians have originated in contacts with Israelis. Israel is much further advanced along the contagion curve because of its population's access to international travel, the country's greater exposure to tourism and its integration into the global economy.

Israel's tight restrictions over Palestinians' freedom of movement from the complete blockade on Gaza to the walling-in of the West Bank as well as its colonial-style control of the Palestinian economy have ensured the late arrival of Covid-19 to the occupied territories.

But it has also guaranteed that the Palestinian leaderships both Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank will be weakly positioned to cope when contagion kicks in more forcefully.

And just such a major outbreak is all but inevitable in the West Bank. Ramadan may well provide the trigger.

In recent years about 80,000 Palestinians from a West Bank population of nearly 3 million have received permits to work either in Israel or in Israeli settlements, with a few tens of thousands more entering "illegally" through missing sections of the wall. For most families, such work is the only hope they have of earning a living.

The Palestinian economy is entirely dependent on Israel. Palestinians cannot leave the West Bank without permission from Israel, which is often hard to get.

Israel imposes costly and lengthy bureaucratic controls on Palestinian exports, making it nigh-impossible for Palestinian firms to compete in the global market-place.

And World Bank studies show that Israel has plundered most of the West Bank's key resources, making it impossible for Palestinians themselves to exploit those resources. Israel even controls the flow of tourists into Palestinian areas.

But Palestinian workers' dependence on Israel is now placing them in harm's way. Although many are likely to catch the virus in Israel while working, Israel is refusing to take responsibility for their welfare.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is able to do little itself because many of the workers are from Area C, the two-thirds of the West Bank that Israel fully controls under the long-expired Oslo Accords. The PA has no access to these areas.

Difficult choice

The Ramadan holiday is likely to severely exacerbate the problem of the virus spreading in the occupied territories.

Last month, as Israel intensified its lockdown to prevent contagion in the run-up to its week-long Passover holiday in the second week of April, Palestinian workers were given a choice. Either they committed to continue working in Israel for several more weeks, often in jobs defined as "essential", such as food production, or they had to stop work and return to the West Bank until the lockdown ended.

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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