In the language of the pandemic, all of Palestine - the West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip - has a serious underlying condition. 50 + years of Occupation have left Palestinian society especially vulnerable to the pandemic that is rampaging throughout the whole world. Seraj Library Project is privileged to be able to share a bit from our unique perspective.
An insightful and valuable report about the Coronavirus in Bethlehem and the West Bank from Paul Parker, Seraj US Board Member at large
Brief Seraj update from Laurie Salameh, Co-founder and Director and Estephan Salameh, Co-founder, in Jerusalem
Brief update from Seraj Board US by John Cassel, Chair
Entering Bethlehem, March 2020
Bethlehem and the Coronavirus
Zoughbi AlZoughbi, Director of Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center, and
Paul Parker, Peace Program Co-coordinator, Mennonite Central Committee, Palestine.
“Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie” is no longer just a Christmas carol. It is now the daily experience of all Bethlehemites. An eerie stillness has descended on Bethlehem and the surrounding towns. Virtually every public and private gathering place has been closed on the orders of the Palestinian Authority (PA). All schools, universities, banks, stores, hotels, restaurants, mosques and churches have been shuttered—even the Church of the Nativity. Only a few pharmacies and grocery stores are open. With very few exceptions, Israel has closed the checkpoints for all West Bank ID holders. All public transportation and all private cars are blocked from traveling between Palestinian towns. Bethlehem and Beit Jala are contiguous but driving across the street from one to the other is impossible.
Coronavirus was first discovered in the West Bank when seven employees of Beit Jala’s Angel Hotel were found to be infected on March 5, 2020—and suddenly, Palestinian life under Israeli military occupation became more difficult. Israel’s Minister of Defense ordered a quarantine of Bethlehem, and the PA moved decisively to contain the virus by declaring a state of emergency for the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip. There is no curfew, but it feels like one.
To learn more about how Bethlehemites are coping with the coronavirus, Israel’s closure and the PA’s state of emergency, I (Paul) walked the silent streets of Bethlehem to meet with Mr. Zoughbi AlZoughbi, Director of Wi’am: The Palestinian Conflict Transformation Center. We met in his home where he greeted me with his typically warm “Ahlan wa sahlan” (welcome) and sporting a new beard which he started to grow when the quarantine was announced and will not be shaved, he says, until the coronavirus has been vanquished. The following is a distillation of Zoughbi’s comments in his voice:
Fewer than fifty Palestinians have been infected with the coronavirus, praise God. [This was accurate when interviewed, but as of 27 March, there were 84 known cases in Palestine—66 are active, 17 recovered, 1 death. For daily Palestinian updates, see www.corona.ps.] Some of our people who been infected or who have been exposed to the virus and are in home quarantine are open about their situation. They are good role models, and I am proud of these people. Others feel ashamed as if they have done something wrong to catch the virus, and they hide themselves and the truth about their illness. Still others are fatalistic reasoning, “God will protect me, but if I catch the virus, it is God’s will.” I worry about these last two groups of people. They do not love others or themselves enough.
Two of my adult children are working as schoolteachers while they finish their master’s degrees at Bethlehem University. Since the closure of everything, classes at the University have moved online, but teaching online in secondary schools is more difficult. Not all secondary school teachers have been trained for online teaching. And some families do not have the internet or even a home computer. So, many teachers are using WhatsApp to teach their students and visiting them in their home. This life is hard, but Palestinians will sacrifice almost anything for a good education.
The economic picture is not good. Although we understand that the PA’s order to close businesses is necessary to protect us, it’s unfortunate because when people don’t work, they don’t get paid. Israel’s occupation has already caused high unemployment and a low standard of living in the West Bank and Gaza, and now it’s worse. Israel still wants and needs Palestinian workers in construction, agriculture and medicine, but unless these workers have a special permit from Israel’s military and someplace to stay in Israel, they cannot get to their jobs. Israel also announced that it wants Palestinians to continue going to their jobs in its settlements, which is strange since the coronavirus does not stop at a checkpoint or a settlement’s guardhouse. On a brighter note, I am happy that the PA employs so many people because we know that they will be getting paid. And Palestinian banks have announced that for the duration of the crisis, they will not require loan payments.
There is more good news coming out of the business closings due to the pandemic. For the first time in my life, I am happy to see more Palestinian military in the streets enforcing the state of emergency. The PA has made a good decision here. Since the Palestinian healthcare system has been crippled by Israel’s military occupation, it cannot handle a large number of infected people. [In all of Palestine, there are 295 ventilators and 375 ICU beds.] It is good that the quarantine and business closures seem to be working. Air pollution has also dropped since there are no cars on the road. I have also noticed that with all the business closings, people are repairing their properties, doing spring cleaning, plowing their fields, and planting trees and flowers. (Last week we planted thirty-eight fruit and almond trees at Wi’am.) The closure and quarantine are like a sabbatical. We work hard in our jobs, at school, and in political activism, and now it is time to take a break, pause and reflect. As our mosques and churches have been closed, and social life has ground to a halt, we are returning to our small, close-knit families. We’re taking care of each other, our elderly and the young. This is really good.
If people have cash, they can get food. There is also no shortage of food. And for those who do not have money, several different free food distributions systems have been set-up by individuals and civil society groups across the region. No one wants to ask for food, but for more and more Palestinians, it has become necessary. Wi’am is working with the Scouts to distribute fresh fruit and vegetable although we have had to stop giving fresh chicken due to the cost.
Coronavirus is a pandemic that crosses the state borders of Israel and Palestine and affects Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. Israelis and Palestinians need to resist the dangerous movement toward racial and religious exclusivism. This virus proves that we are all one, equally threatened by coronavirus. Israel needs to change. We must live together in peace, working together for everyone’s well-being—Israeli and Palestinian—Jews, Muslims and Christians. There is no security in Israel unless there is also security in Palestine. The new name of the game is inclusivity and equality.
As a Christian Palestinian, I ask my Christian sisters and brothers not to forget us in our time of need. Call us. Send us emails. Pray for us. When it is again permitted, come visit us. We, the “living stones” of the Holy Land, represent you in the land where Jesus was born, lived, taught, was killed, and resurrected. We need to know that you care.
Dr. Paul Parker is a US Board Member of Seraj Library Project. A former religion teacher at Elmhurst College (IL), he is currently serving with Mennonite Central Committee in the West Bank.
This article was published by Mondoweiss on March 29, 2020.
The Seraj Aida Refugee Camp Library is located in Bethlehem.
A brief update from Laurie Salameh, our Palestinian Director, on how Seraj Library Project is faring in Palestine.
Dear Seraj Friends,
We are in complete lockdown, which everyone seems to support. To be honest, Palestine doesn't have the capacity to address an outbreak, so prevention is the best method. After all, this is Palestine, where people are (sadly) used to curfews and lock downs.
How does this affect Seraj? First of all, we have had to cancel our annual Children's Festival (where we invite artists to create interactive performances for small children). Secondly, we have cancelled Layali Ramadaniye. This year we were partnering once again with the Goethe Institute and it was going to be pretty cool with circus performers and musicians. So we are very disappointed but left without a choice. The libraries will also be closed for the next 30 days. At this point I'm not even sure we can hold our board meeting at the end of March. Work on the storytelling center and new library is paused at the moment. We had also started a small team of our scholarship students to support us in these activities... they were thrilled to meet together and work from the main office on these tasks, but that is on hold as well.
Personally, I'm feeling frustrated because we have a lot of exciting things for Seraj we've just started and now we must hit the pause button. And the kids were doing very well in school and with music... I hate to lose our stride. But I'm comforted Estephan is part of the national team addressing this. -Laurie
As noted, Estephan Salameh is part of the Palestinian Authority (PA) task force dealing with COVID-19. We are proud of his work and contribution to Palestinian well-being through his work with the Prime Minister.
A brief update from John Cassel, US Board Chair, on how Seraj Library Project is faring in the US.
Dear faithful donors and supporters,
Seraj Library Project was in the midst of our best year ever. We have received more than $160,000 since last July, plus a $100,000 bequest from an anonymous donor from the UK. At the same time, new plans and projects have been developing in Palestine: The Storytelling Center and its new neighborhood home in Kufor Aqab, a partnership with the Palestinian Conservatory of Music, new connections to school librarians, more. So, we will make very good use of our record donations.
The Benefit Committee met recently, to consider our October 4 event. Not surprisingly, they cannot see the future at this point and are not sure how to proceed. We will keep you posted. A decision on how to move forward will be made by June 1.
We aim to keep our eyes on the prize - partnering with Palestinian communities in the service of children, youth and families. We offer prayers and support for all who are suffering from COVID-19 and its related indignities. -John
This newsletter crafted by the Communications Committee, Amelia Miller, Chair
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