Palestine: What was happening here was never normal anyway


Budour Hassan is a Palestinian writer living in Jerusalem who writes about politics, the environment, feminisms, and disability. As we locked down, sort of, in Cairo, I spoke with Budour about the pandemic in Palestine, and her thoughts and concerns about the future. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Mada Masr: A few weeks ago you tweeted “Solidarity and social distancing are not mutually exclusive. Those of us who have been sustained by online friendships and long-distance intimacy testify to this.” Can you say more about this? 

Budour Hassan: Yes, that was at the very beginning of this experience … now I don’t even talk to anyone anymore, neither long distance nor short distance. But I wrote that because for us, this is a longstanding reality. Those of us in ‘48 can’t visit Arab countries. Many of us make friends online, fall in love online with people we know we can never meet. You develop your coping mechanisms, and this involves imagination.

People are now talking about not being able to touch. We’ve had to imagine that, to accept it, that you may never smell or touch someone that you love. At least now, with the pandemic, it’s temporary. For Palestinians it’s been accepted as an eternity, and we’ve had to build a whole world through the means of connection, of knowing, that we do have. In my case it’s been all about building up on voice.

We talk about the pandemic now as an emergency keeping us from movement, from connection. For us the borders have been the long-standing emergency. 

MM: So where are you now? 

BH: I went back to Nazareth, where my family is, because my office in Jerusalem closed. I work on research and advocacy with the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center, and now we’re working remotely. Now that the courts are closed, most proceedings have been stopped. 

MM: How has the work been affected?

BH: Prisoners are hugely affected — their lawyers can’t visit them directly, interrogations and consultations are all happening by the phone or online. There is a huge privacy and confidentiality problem with this. At least those with release dates are being released as usual. For the rest, all family visits are suspended but they are able to make phone calls. Israel released “nonviolent” detainees in response to corona; none of them are political detainees. 

MM: How did the city change for you once everything closed down? Were you still moving around? 

BH: The first week was magical. There were still buses, one every two hours. In the western part of Jerusalem there was no traffic and no Israelis at all so you could walk around easily. Yom Kippur is a bit similar to this — it gets very quiet, and in Palestinian neighborhoods there are still street vendors but there are no school kids. The buses are almost empty except for a few old ladies going to pray.

I take the Issawiya bus between my home and my office on Salah el Din Street. Usually this bus is brimming with people, there is barely a place to stand. 

For me, the beginning of the shutdown recreated my relationship with the city. Of course you wish it were for different reasons: I don’t want people to disappear. You don’t want to say that and risk falling into Darwinism and Malthusian thinking. But sometimes you do wish you could walk on your own without hearing people. It was a magical opportunity to explore, it was transformative. As if you put on noise-canceling headphones. It recreated the city all over again. There were very few soldiers, and they were not imposing fines. I didn’t want to leave. We worked in the office until the last possible moment.

MM: You couldn’t stay in Jerusalem after the office closed? 

BH: I had to return because of pressure from the family; they want me to be safe and they can no longer come to Jerusalem. I was almost coerced into going back … I really didn’t want to. If I don’t have work I don’t have “justification” for staying away from my family. That’s the hardest part about it. 

I keep asking people in Jerusalem how it is there now, especially with Ramadan. It’s the time of year when we have the bulk of our social life. Usually we go out and sit on the steps of Damascus Gate. Today they said there would be a closure for Israeli Independence Day and the first 10 days of Ramadan. So everything closes at 7 pm, an hour before iftar, and stays closed until dawn. They will enforce this in all Palestinian-majority towns.

We felt this a bit during Ramadan in 2014, during the war on Gaza. I remember on Laylat al-Qadr, just a few thousand of us were allowed into al-Aqsa. For people who wait for this all year round, this is a catastrophe. People in the West Bank, who can usually get special permits to come to the mosque, were not allowed in at all. 

And it’s not just about the movement between the West Bank and ‘48. Every week buses from north of ‘48, from towns like Nazareth, take people to Jerusalem, where they shop in the old city, and stay in Palestinian hotels. This is a huge help to Palestinian businesses in the city, and they really felt it in the shutdown of 2014. It’s going to be even worse this year. 

All of this movement across Palestine is now even more circumscribed. When people from the north want to buy a lot of goods, like sweets and things for Ramadan, they go to Nablus. It’s cheaper and you can get certain specialty items — clothing, for example. Plus they just love being in Nablus after iftar and staying through suhoor. That’s not going to happen. It will have an effect. 

Of course, people in Nablus generally complain about the Ramadan colonization by people from ‘48, and vendors raising costs etc, which really affects West Bankers who generally have lower salaries. 

Who will support Palestinian small businesses? They have to pay a lot of tax, for example the building tax you pay in proportion to the size of the space. It’s very high in Jerusalem. 

You worry about the places that you love. Like the Jerusalem Hotel, for example, one of the few Palestinian places where people can go and eat any time during Ramandan, steal a meal away from the glances of people. 

Many people are quarantined with conservative families, with people more conservative than they are. We don’t have spaces of freedom anymore. You don’t normally choose where you have to spend quarantine. 

MM: Is the reaction to the pandemic taking on racial dimensions? 

BH: There’s been a bit of a trend in Israeli media, especially the ones writing in English, to place attention on Arab nurses and doctors as model Palestinians, playing on the tropes of “good” and “bad” Arabs. Creating models out of them but also pitching them as exceptions: Look at these exemplary Arab doctors (and of course they call them Arab, not Palestinian), if only the Arabs tried harder, they could be beneficial to Israeli society. A narrative that overlooks everything — history, occupation. The virus doesn’t discriminate, but the measures that we treat it with does.

Relatively speaking, Palestinians in ‘48 have lower rates of infection, but this could be because of testing being more prevalent in Israeli communities. 

This could be because Palestinians understand that any safety we will find is up to us; the state won’t help us. They took measures even before the state did, especially in Jerusalem. 

The biggest profiling in the Israeli debate is actually that of the ultra Orthodox Jews — now they lump them in with Arabs so as not to seem to be discriminating against just one of them. The Orthodox Jews have had the highest rates of infection, and people are refusing to comply with isolation measures, invoking the freedom to worship. 

Social and economic outcomes of the closures might be where the discrimination is more felt. So many of the Palestininan businesses are family businesses. How can they restructure? We’ll see to whom priority is given with the new government. You can say that class is always a factor (in the aftermath), but for Palestinians it’s different — ALL labor is done through small businesses. 

Of course you also have all the questions about ventilators and medical treatment and whether there will be life-or-death discrimnation, but we haven’t had to face this yet. And now that they have relaxed the measures after Pesach, if there is a revival of the virus, with higher numbers than in March, what’s going to happen? 

We can see differences even in the existing circumstances. For example, the difference in public education couldn’t be greater between Israeli and Palestinian schools and households. The effect on kids, especially children with disabilities, when most of them rely on public transport between cities and have no other frameworks to work within. The ex-post effect of the virus will be greater here. It’s not as screaming as the US, where something is going on with hugely disproportionate effects on minorities, we don’t feel that yet. But here it’s also this thing of Palestinians needing to take it on themselves because the state won’t help. 

Israelis say it’s an opportunity to increase cooperation with Palestinians. So we already see the politicization and exploitation of the virus to achieve personal interests by Netanyahu and his party.

They’ve given more work permits to workers because they need them — they need them to pick fruit and do other essential work. The Palestinian Authority is priding itself on this. But then most infections in the West Bank are from workers coming from ‘48, and the Israelis don’t test them or treat the workers. Their employers keep them in horrible conditions, where they sleep in crowded rooms etc. Then they literally leave them on the side of the road, saying they’re not our problem. The government has increased numbers of workers in factories, too. 

The PA is able to contain the virus with the strict lockdown measures. But to what extent can this be maintained during Ramadan? What effect will it have on people? If it goes out of control, how will the PA and infrastructure handle it? There is already internal propaganda against the workers going to ‘48. The big challenge will be to see if they can help with those hit hard economically.

Jerusalem is a totally different issue — no one is willing to intervene. Israel refused to do anything about the Palestinian community there. So the PA was testing people in Silwan, which it isn’t supposed to be doing. There are also infections in Kafr Aqab, a refugee camp behind the wall that’s under Jerusalem’s municipal control. Some people there subscribe to Israeli healthcare. But service provision is poor, and there is no luxury of social distancing. 

How will we navigate partial reopenings? We are between a rock and a hard place, with the  effects of the lockdown and the danger of illnesses. And people feel that for Israeli authorities, we’re disposable anyway. We’re essential enough to come work in factories, but not to be treated when we get sick. 

MM: Do you feel like there are opportunities for change, for movement towards more socially just systems to come from this? There’s talk in some places of an emboldened left, of using this crisis as an opportunity to rethink, to reorganize. 

BH: I think that things are going to be even worse after this ends. There are positive alternatives to think about, but I think of what happened in 2008, the bailouts and the shock doctrines that followed the crash. There are already examples of this happening again in Europe — the jarring failure of multilateralism. 

It’s always the emboldened right wing, nativist parties who spring up. This crisis should be an opportunity to rethink the systems but crises become a springboard for disaster nationalism, and if the left spends its time arguing over tactics then it will be about who is more organized. 

We know that we need less travel, that we need to redefine what’s essential, and what’s skilled. Who is mournable and who is not. How we have failed those we should have been protecting. But can you transform this crisis into a springboard for these changes, or will we just “return to normal”? What was happening here was never normal anyway. 

Listening to the vocab that’s being used about the pandemic is discouraging, this warmongering and anti-terrorist language, even a term like “white warriors” for example. This is not comforting.

How much will we normalize surveillance of our lives, for the sake of supposed safety? There are things going on theoretically. Some people are rethinking agricultural systems and travel, who we pay and who we don’t. Neoliberalism is unsustainable, we say. We talk about debt relief. But then afterwards we automatically revert to life as before. Again we will just take things for granted. There’s a problem of collective forgetting. 

Are we going to get a push for a more egalitarian system globally, or will you get rightists saying that this has proved what they’ve been saying all along? That we don’t need migrants … and so on. 

You seem more optimistic than I am about the US. But there is a very bland alternative to Trump. It might lead to another New Deal, we say. But I think looking at the way things were once is a proof of the poverty of our imagination. We revert to already existing paradigms. 

It is hard to think of this future positively when I look at Egypt, or around the region, especially after the losses of the last 10 years, and with the reliance on external aid, the silencing of people even more. 

MM: So what can we do? 

We’re tired. We complain all the time. I’ve been uprooted and forced to leave Jerusalem. My independent life is gone. But at least I don’t face physical abuse. I have some space to talk and think by myself. It’s not what I’m used to in Jerusalem. But I don’t feel justified in complaining. We observe, we watch, and we wait with some hope for the first day after. 

Yasmin El-Rifae 

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