The inability to envisage a foreseeable end to the extraordinary measures being imposed in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has generated much uneasiness and distress around the world. With lockdowns and isolation measures put in place across cities, regions, and entire countries, the global experience has largely mirrored a reality that Palestinians have known for decades. The inability to control one’s life, a myriad of movement restrictions, denial of access to basic services, including health care, and family separation are just a fraction of the policies Israel has long imposed over Palestinians. Today more than ever, people around the world who are experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic can relate to Palestinians living with fear, insecurity, and uncertainty under Israeli policies and practices of colonization and apartheid.
During the Nakba or the “catastrophe” of 1948, Palestinian society was decimated when nearly two-thirds of the the Palestinian people were forcibly uprooted from their homes, dispossessed and forced into prolonged refugeehood across the region. In the aftermath of the Nakba, Israel put in place legislation to seal Palestinian displacement and treated Palestinian refugees and displaced persons as criminals and “infiltrators” for attempting to return to their lands and property, an inalienable right still denied to them seven decades later. Palestinians who remained within the Green Line, a quarter of whom were internally displaced, were forced to live under Israeli lockdown during a state of emergency military rule, a reality which lasted 19 years. Continuing until 1966, Israel’s military administration over Palestinian citizens, rooted in institutionalized discrimination, sought to control every aspect of their lives: rights were severely repressed, particularly freedom of movement. Closures were imposed, exit and entry permits were required, and a curfew was put in place. These oppressive policies and practices, etched into the Palestinian collective memory, culminated on October 29, 1956, with the Kufr Qasem massacre, when Israeli border police killed 49 Palestinians, most of them farmers returning from their work in the fields. Little did they know that a curfew had been imposed on their village earlier that day.*
Beyond the Green Line, freedom of movement restrictions imposed as widespread collective punishment have been a staple of Israel’s prolonged military occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. From regular curfews and closures imposed on Palestinian cities and towns – including during the years of the first and second Intifadas and more recently with the complete lockdown of Hebron and its surroundings in July 2016, affecting 700,000 Palestinians at the time – Israel has consistently employed security and counter-terrorism rhetoric as a pretext to deny Palestinians the ability to exercise their inalienable rights. Over the years, closure and isolation policies have fragmented the Palestinian people and the occupied Palestinian territory through ever-increasing residency and access restrictions, the perpetual denial of family unification, and the imposition of a permit regime that has prevented Palestinians from moving from one area of the territory to the other. Starting in 2002, the construction of the Annexation Wall in the West Bank, including in and around East Jerusalem, has disrupted family life, separated farmers from their lands, and divided Palestinian communities, while severing Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank.
While the coronavirus has disrupted peoples’ lives in almost every part of the globe, restricting freedom of movement and the right to family life, Palestinians have been living for decades with uncertainty and arbitrariness imposed by Israel’s settler-colonial enterprise and apartheid regime, controlling their every move and the most basic aspects of their lives.
More severe still is Israel’s prolonged closure policy imposed as collective punishment over two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. With closure measures imposed since 2000, and increased restrictions since 2007, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been isolated from the rest of the world and confined to one of the most densely populated areas on earth. Most Gazans are Palestinian refugees from 1948, with Israel having denied their right of return to their homes, lands, and property ever since. Distinct from what the rest of the world is facing under lockdown today, the siege has undermined all aspects of Palestinian life in the Gaza Strip, including access to basic services such as health care. Some 97 percent of water is now unfit for human consumption, 68 percent of Palestinians are food insecure, and poverty has reached 53 percent, affecting over a million Palestinians in the Strip, including over 400,000 children.