Like so many, my life and activism were turned upside down by COVID-19 this year. I am overjoyed to finally be able to share that our family is together, generally healthy and in love. I hope that now that my husband Nizar is back home, I can earn the sea legs I need to not only withstand, but resist in 2020.
For four months Nizar was marooned in Egypt while our three daughters and I were home in Nablus in the West Bank. Nizar had traveled to Egypt on March 1, 2020 for his niece’s wedding. He planned to come home two weeks later, but by that time, the pandemic broke out and Jordan closed its borders. Since the Israeli authorities deny Palestinians from the occupied territory the right to travel through the part of historical Palestine now considered Israel and they do not allow flights directly to or from the occupied territory, Jordan is the only available port for Palestinians from the West Bank to the outside world.
Nizar and his sisters first stayed at a hotel in Cairo. They watched and waited as country by country, foreign nationals were evacuated out of Egypt. When they realized Palestinians were left behind, they moved out of the hotel into a rented flat.
Being separated from Nizar and taking care of the kids without him in Nablus as the city went through lockdown was hard. But after four months the Jordanians finally began to allow Palestinians who were stranded around the world to be flown in to the airport in Amman. From there travelers were driven straight to the Allenby bridge where they could cross into the West Bank. Nizar and his sisters were on the first flights that came in.
We are among the extremely lucky ones. Some Palestinians are still stranded abroad, waiting for clearance from the Israeli and Jordanian governments.
I am in contact with other spouses of Palestinians who come from different countries (we call ourselves SOPs) some of whom are still trapped abroad. Spouses of Palestinians from the occupied territory do not have Palestinian ID cards because the occupation authorities control the population registry and do not grant family reunification rights or residency status. Because SOPs do not have Palestinian IDs, Israel will not allow them through the border.
Spouses of West Bank Palestinians who asked Israel for permission to come home through the airport outside of Tel Aviv told me they were refused and that the Israeli authorities do not consider being a spouse separated from their family a humanitarian case that would warrant an exemption.
Back in March when the first cases of the coronavirus appeared in Bethlehem there was a short period where we felt that the Palestinian Authority got something right for a change. After initially containing the spread, the leadership and the people I talk to in the West Bank seem content to let the pandemic run its course. So many here are convinced that COVID-19 is no big deal that I am beginning to wonder if I am missing something. The infection rates recently increased dramatically, but the mortality rate seems stable. So far 148 have died in the West Bank from COVID-19. To me that sounds like 148 too many, but no one I know in the West Bank is talking about it.
My friends in Gaza where the outbreak of the pandemic has just begun, are terrified of the devastating effects the outbreak will have. Before the coronavirus made its way into Gaza the hospitals barely functioned due to more than a decade of siege that has crumbled Gaza’s infrastructure. This was made worse by a recent escalation of the siege that forced Gaza’s only power plant to shut down.
Even before the outbreak sick people in Gaza, including a dear friend who needs radiation therapy, were dying because they cannot leave to get the medical treatment they so desperately need.
Now the besieged population is facing the outbreak of the pandemic in addition to the siege and repeated bombings by the Israeli military. There are only around 85 ventilators for 2 million people in Gaza. As the UN predicted Gaza is indeed unlivable in 2020.
The pandemic has put activism on hold, including the Gaza 2020 break the siege project. The project aimed to organize delegations of international human rights defenders who would enter Gaza on foot by way of cutting holes in the fence that besieges it. The first attempt took place in January 2020. That delegation that included Finish Parliament member Anna Kontula, was arrested en route to the fence.
After, we were interrogated by “the unit for serious and international crimes” and Israel’s secret service (the Shabak). I was separated from the others and accused of “conspiring to illegally enter enemy territory and contact with a foreign agent.”
The international delegates were released ten hours later and I was released the next day. I am so happy to be alive and free to be with my family and yet I am also very aware that Palestinians who attempt to approach the fence besieging them are met with live bullets and lethal force. The occupation forces have killed hundreds and maimed thousands of unarmed protestors at the fence, and Israel is allowed to continue this criminal behavior with impunity.
And so, COVID-19 managed to do what the Israeli police and secret service could not do. It has prevented further attempts, for the time being. During this period my friends and partner activists in Gaza remain in touch and we are dreaming up new ways we can stand and resist together. They published an interview with me on the Gaza voice podcast in Arabic. Here is the link to the original episode in English.
While Nizar was gone I stopped traveling to Palestine 48/Israel, because I couldn’t leave the girls alone. I still hesitate to do so because the number of cases logged by the Israeli ministry of health is higher than in the West Bank and I don’t want to bring the virus back with me. But this week I took precautions and went to Yaffa to meet Haim Schwarczenberg, the videographer for the Return Solidarity movement. We worked on editing footage from a visit we made to the site of our friend Haidar Eid’s village of origin, Zarnuga last year. Haidar’s parents lived in Zarnuga before the Nakba and were forced to leave in 1948.
Haidar was born a refugee in Gaza. He has not been able to visit Zarnuga since his childhood. The only structure still standing in Zarnuga that predates the Nakba is a mosque and some trees. Everything else—the homes, the graveyard, the schools, the citrus orchards—have all been destroyed. We sent him the footage and a heartbreaking conversation followed that our friend, Khalil, filmed from Gaza. I hope to be able to share it soon.
The one development that brings hope and inspiration in this difficult year is the Black Lives Matter movement. It is beautiful to see the movement reborn in this moment, to see people coming out of lockdown fighting for their rights, to see the work of the civil rights movement reincarnate and evolve. From Palestine we are watching and learning and praying that the struggle bears fruit. We are all indebted to all those who worked to sow those seeds.
Editor’s note: A version of this letter was originally published on Neta Golan’s Patreon where she posts updates about her life, work and activism in Palestine.