In East Jerusalem, People Fear Hunger Not Coronavirus

The poverty rate has reached 90%. 40,000 people have asked for financial support. 700 families require help feeding their babies, and that is just in one neighborhood. Even those eligible for unemployment benefits find it hard to receive them. In East Jerusalem, almost no coronavirus tests are being performed, but the virus is impacting everyone. A special project.

The poverty rate has reached 90%. 40,000 people have asked for financial support. 700 families require help feeding their babies, and that is just in one neighborhood. Even those eligible for unemployment benefits find it hard to receive them. In East Jerusalem, almost no coronavirus tests are being performed, but the virus is impacting everyone. A special project.

The poverty rate has reached 90%. 40,000 people have asked for financial support. 700 families require help feeding their babies, and that is just in one neighborhood. Even those eligible for unemployment benefits find it hard to receive them. In East Jerusalem, almost no coronavirus tests are being performed, but the virus is impacting everyone. A special project.

Natan Odenheimer, Nagham AbuLeil

Photography: Tomer Zamora, The State of Jerusalem

April 7, 2020



n Jerusalem, the Covid–19 virus managed to do in two weeks what two decades of a continued struggle for sovereignty has not: at the beginning of April, for the first time in 20 years, uniformed Palestinian police officers entered the city’s municipal area with permission from the Israeli government. Their mission was to calm tempers after armed individuals from the Qalandiya refugee camp tried to prevent the passage of armed individuals from Kafr 'Aqab, claiming they posed a risk of infection. Minister Gilad Erdan dashed off a tweet explaining that this was a reasonable move as it supported Israeli interests. In another part of the city, at almost the same time, Israeli police confiscated food packages in Sur Baher, claiming that the donation might have originated in the Palestinian Authority – a suspicion that was later completely refuted. The next phase was the arrest of the Palestinian Jerusalem Affairs Ministers Fadi al־Hadami and the Palestinian Governor of Jerusalem Adnan Ghaith on suspicion of undermining Israel’s sovereignty.

The Israeli authorities’ explanation that the Palestinian police officers serve "Israeli interests" while the food packages undermine Israeli sovereignty illustrates the back and forth of successive Israeli governments regarding East Jerusalem as well as their lack of long־term policy. It should therefore come as no surprise. However, the ensuing problems are amplified due to the coronavirus pandemic and will have severe repercussions. Most central is the poverty in the east of the city, which is today estimated to include around 90% of the population – a poverty that could propel many to the brink of starvation. To Israelis, this concern might sound exaggerated or unfounded; however, in interviews we conducted with social activists, Israeli and Palestinian government officials, families in need, managers of health facilites, and police and city officials, the fear of starvation was a repeating theme.

Coronavirus? No tests are being done in East Jerusalem

Ali Id sits in his office at the Alhayat branch of the Israeli health maintenance organization (HMO) Meuhedet in Shu’afat. He has barely slept for the past few days, and this is evident in his puckered forehead and the slight shaking of his hands. About five hours earlier, right outside his office window, the first coronavirus testing lab in East Jerusalem had opened. "We have tested six people so far," he said.

Until Thursday April 2, there was nowhere to be tested in East Jerusalem. Patients who arrived at clinics with symptoms were sent back home unless they could report contact with a confirmed patient. It should be recalled that the "confirmed patient" policy had been amended in Israel over a week previously. "We are in the third week of the pandemic, and until yesterday we were uncertain of the situation in the field," said a senior area coordinator in a Palestinian organization. "We still don’t know the levels of infection, where the sick are concentrated, or where they’ve been, and there is no monitoring of them. It is simply out of control." Similar things are being said by Fuad Abu Ahmed, who operates three HMO Clalit clinics in East Jerusalem and who warned almost two weeks ago that the oversight in East Jerusalem was about to become a disaster.

A single mother: "I heard that the Ministry of Social Services is helping both people who have a file and people who don’t. I contacted them before the coronavirus and they told me that they can’t help me because my ID is Gazan. Okay, I get it, but what can I do about it? Die? Should I be thrown onto the streets because I’m Gazan?"

Unofficial data based on the tests performed up to April 5 that indicate some 50 confirmed patients in East Jerusalem are far from realistic. On that same day, Jerusalem had a total of 1,300 confirmed cases. East Jerusalem comprises over a third of the city’s population, so even if most of the infections were within West Jerusalem’s Jewish ultra־Orthodox (Haredi) communities, the number of cases was still unlikely to be so low. Furthermore, the East Jerusalemites, known as muqaddas in Arabic, are much less segregated than in the past and now socialize, work, and receive treatment alongside the Jewish population.

Fuad Abu Ahmed explains that the low number of cases is the result of two different yet connected reasons. The first, he says, is the racism of the Israeli establishment which did not test the residents of East Jerusalem and is therefore unaware of cases. The second is the social stigma surrounding infection with the virus in East Jerusalem, which leads East Jerusalemites to hide their illness.

The theory about the social shame attached to infection has been widely reported on in the Israeli press and social networks, but not everyone is convinced of its validity. "There was one case in Shu’afat where they tried to hide a patient and would not reveal his name," said a senior official in the East Jerusalem Development Company. "It is one single case that is not indicative of the rest. What is happening in East Jerusalem is very simple – if they do more tests, they’ll find more patients."

In the Alhayat medical center’s lab in Shu’afat, Id confirms this statement regarding the number of tests. He told us that on the first day of testing, four times more people came – almost all with clear symptoms of hypochondria rather than coronavirus. In the following three days, 50 people were tested, and as of the start of this week, around 600–800 people were tested in East Jerusalem – a drop in the ocean compared to the size of the population and the number of infections in the rest of the city.

One change for the better throughout this period has been the attitude toward the virus among residents of East Jerusalem. Reports two weeks ago that the government was considering a lockdown on East Jerusalem drew heavy criticism. In the ensuing days, the attitude has changed, evident in the dominant tone of social media and the fact that most (though not all) mosques have ceased operations.

Amin, an East Jerusalem resident who works at the Musrara market opposite Damascus Gate and wears a mask, puts things in no uncertain terms: "Everything must be shut down. All the roads must be closed. So people won’t leave their houses. That’s the only way to fight it. We need to listen to the instructions and not die of this virus."

Fearing the plague of starvation

The massive fear over the outbreak of the virus is intermingled with an even greater concern. Many families in East Jerusalem struggle to buy basic food products even in regular times, and there is real concern about the economic consequences of the crisis.

"Those who manage today will not necessarily manage tomorrow, not to mention a month from now," says Hondaide (real name withheld), a mother of three daughters from At־Tur, describing her distress. "Only God knows my situation. Some days we eat, but I have no idea what will happen tomorrow."

Hondaide is far from a unique case. Khaled Salman, the head of the social services department responsible for East Jerusalem, says that prior to the corona crisis the poverty rate stood at 75%. In the past few weeks, it has, according to estimates, risen to 90%. If there is no significant change by the end of April, he says, "almost all of East Jerusalem will be under the poverty line."

Another indication of the dire situation comes from the Palestinian refugee camp Shu’afat, where the welfare system is far from adequate even during normal times. As of the beginning of April, over 700 families reported being in distress and on the brink of starvation with an immediate need for baby formula, diapers, and food.

According to current statistics, 84% of the male population of East Jerusalem work, though most perform daily jobs for meager pay. The percentage of working women stands at only 22%. There are also many salaried employees, but here too most make just a minimum wage. Among East Jerusalemites, there are also some who are more affluent, as can be seen in neighborhoods like Beit Hanina and Beit Safafa. However, most live in neighborhoods like the refugee camps of Shu’afat and Silwan which suffer from systematic neglect.

Khaled Salman says that as of April 2, over 40,000 people in East Jerusalem required regular support to make ends meet. "And those are just the people who are registered with social services. Estimates are that there are tens of thousands more who are unregistered. This week, I handed out food coupons worth NIS 735,000, and next week, we are providing additional support packages to the elderly." This support is worth NIS 250־NIS 400 a month and goes mostly to the elderly and single־parent households, but this is not a sum that can significantly change the recipient’s destitute situation.

Similar concerns about hunger were voiced by all those interviewed for this article. "At the start of April, I might have spoken differently," said Hussein, an activist in the Center for Palestinian Rights Awareness who lives in Beit Safafa, "but this morning, requests for assistance started coming in. Even here in Beit Safafa, which is an affluent neighborhood, 12 families have no way of putting food on the table."

Back to Hondaide, whose story is similar to many other residents of East Jerusalem. Born and raised in Gaza, she married an East Jerusalem resident 25 years ago and relocated. Seven years and three children later, they got divorced and her ex־husband left and doesn’t provide support for her or their children. His father offered Hondaide a place to stay, and she has lived there with her daughters ever since. "If you saw the house I live in, you’d say ‘God help her, how does she stay there.’ In the winter, we suffer from rainwater leaks. I filed requests with house renovation associations; they said ‘yes, yes,’ but have done nothing."

Hondaide is dealing with her fear of starvation all on her own. "I heard that the Ministry of Social Services helps both people who have a file and people who don’t. I have had a file for 20 years now, and I have only received help two or three times during that time with sums of NIS 700 or NIS 800. Even then, I had to bring receipts for the expenses. I contacted them before the coronavirus, and they told me they can’t help because my ID is Gazan. Okay, I get it, but what can I do? Die? Should I be thrown onto the streets because I’m Gazan?"

As said before, Hondaide is not an isolated case. Though she married an East Jerusalem resident and her children have Israeli IDs, she is not eligible for support from the Israeli social services. Her adult daughters do not receive any support either despite suffering from mental illness. "I’ve spoken with social services several times about help with one of the girls. She is almost 23 and she sometimes goes through several days when she refuses to eat anything. She sits on the couch and doesn’t let anyone come close. I have asked for care for her, and if she can be taken for treatment, but they said no, she is already an adult."

Until the coronavirus crisis, Hondaide worked managed to eke out a living as a living, but she has been out of work since the crisis broke out. The Palestinian social services give her NIS 750 every three months, but even that is no always regular. Hondaide doesn't know what else she can do. "The muqaddas, with all due respect, don’t feel the suffering of the others, those who come from the West Bank or Gaza. A woman like me has no one to lean on. On Facebook, all kinds of people write ‘we help,’ but no one has come to my home to bring me a bag of bread or meat or chicken or even rice. Nothing. Where is this help?"

Another indication of the dire situation comes from Palestinian refugee camp Shu’afat, where the welfare system is far from adequate even during normal times. As of the beginning of April, over 700 resident families reported being in distress and on the brink of starvation with an immediate need for baby formula,

A safety net but in Hebrew

As previously stated, there are many salaried employees in East Jerusalem. Many of them were given unpaid leave – a situation that at least, in theory, promises a safety net in the form of unemployment benefits. But like everything else in East Jerusalem, these benefits are not easy to receive.

According to data from the Employment Service, over 70,000 people have joined the ranks of the unemployed in Jerusalem since the end of March. There is no breakdown of the newly unemployed according to neighborhoods, but an analysis of the city’s job market, which relies heavily on government offices that continue to operate as usual, suggests that a significant percentage of the newly unemployed are Arabs. And here is the main stumbling block – language. Forms are submitted in Hebrew, which is a no small barrier for some East Jerusalem residents. Associations and organizations that mediate between East Jerusalemites and state entities have been flooded with thousands of calls and requests for assistance in filling out the forms. In order to bridge the gap, some Palestinian organizations that do not usually collaborate with Israeli state entities have decided to help: for example, one Palestinian organization has helped the Joint (JDC) produce a video explaining how to fill in unemployment forms in Hebrew, step by step.

And if the struggles of those without legal standing and those whose permanent jobs are threatened are not enough, there are all those who live off unreported employment. In the East Jerusalem economy, many earn a living as small־scale traders, shuttle bus drivers, welders, glaziers, and more. Only a small part, if any, of their income is reported to the authorities, which means they are not eligible for even the small grants being handed out to the self־employed who are impacted by the pandemic. Riham Jabar, head of the East Jerusalem branch of MATI (Business Development Center) reported: "There are many who work in unreported employment as well as many who work in the Palestinian Authority who have no way of registering for unemployment but still have kids to feed and rent to pay."

In an attempt to alleviate the distress in East Jerusalem, several organizations have started handing out food and assistance packages. These include the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, Matan Fund, the Kulna associations, local community administrations, Muslim charities, and more. Another initiative was the establishment of Madad, a website intended to answer the urgent needs of the poor, reportedly backed by businessman Munib Rashid al־Masri, who donated over a million euros, and officials from the Palestinian Authority. People can register as volunteers on the website or sign up to receive food and basic necessities.

Everything is political

There are many reasons for the dismal situation of East Jerusalem’s population, but key is the lack of long־term Israeli policy regarding the east of the city and its inhabitants.

A little background: Jerusalem is the city with the largest Arab population in Israel, around 360,000 people. Many of them are not citizens but have resident status, which gives them Israeli ID cards and access to state services and benefits but no parliamentary voting rights. Over the years, as petitions for citizenship have increased, Israel has toughened its criteria and made it much harder to gain citizenship.

The official Israeli policy regarding East Jerusalem remains something of a mystery. Officially and legally, East Jerusalem was annexed immediately after the Six־Day War and is as much a part of Israel as any other city in the country. In reality, however the annexation that took place 53 years ago is still mostly on paper. For example, the separation fence (Israeli West Bank Barrier) left several neighborhoods that should belong to Jerusalem on the other side of the barrier, municipal services are not provided to some East Jerusalem neighborhoods, the East Jerusalem education system is split between the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Israel, development budgets are tiny compared to those of Jewish neighborhoods, there are no planning and construction policies, and the list goes on.

To the lack of a clear Israeli policy on East Jerusalem, one should add the ongoing attempts by the Palestinian Authority to operate in Jerusalem via associations, civil activities, mosques, and others. Over the years, these activities have had their ups and downs; nonetheless, the Palestinian Authority has a significant influence on the residents of East Jerusalem.

Yankale Hameiri lives in an assisted living facility in Ganei Tikva with his wife who suffers from cognitive decline. His wife's caregiver has moved in with them due to the lockdown orders. "My wife spends all day in a wheelchair watching TV. No more visits to daycare facilities, no more physical activity," he said. "The lockdown is complete, and I pass the time watching nature movies and reading and re־reading the newspapers. It's very hard, but I understand that the staff are anxious for our safety. They don't let us do anything on our own; they are permanent staff and are fully protected. When my daughter comes to visit, I see her from the balcony like I'm in prison. At the weekend, the management organized a Shabbat eve ceremony, which they performed for the residents who watched from their balconies."

Michael Shiloh, 86, moved to the Nofey Yerushalayim assisted living facility in Jerusalem two months ago. One building over is the Nofim nursing home, where one resident recently died of coronavirus. Shiloh chose the facility because of his wife, a geriatric nursing patient who has lived in Nofim for the past three years. "Two weeks after I moved, I entered self־isolation after it was discovered that one of the nurses in the department where my wife is a patient has the virus. A short while after my self־isolation entered, we all went into full lockdown: all 15 floors and 170 apartments."

Shiloh has not seen his wife in over a month. "The staff who take care of her call me on Whatsapp and show her to me," he said. Shiloh said that he is managing the boredom well. "I still meet my gang on Zoom, read books, and watch movies. I order in from the restaurant downstairs. It's no great pleasure, but I understand that I am part of a high־risk group and that the death rate is higher at our age. The staff here are very dedicated, and I'm sure they are doing their best to make us feel protected."

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.