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Coronavirus: Rights group demands Israel open testing centres in Palestinian areas

To get tested, residents of Kufr Aqab and the Shuafat camp have to travel through Israeli checkpoints to Jerusalem 
Palestinian Shuafat refugee camp, right, behind Israel's controversial separation wall earlier this year (AFP)
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Bethlehem, occupied West Bank

As the number of coronavirus cases in Israel continues to increase, surpassing 9,400, rights groups are demanding that authorities end their neglect of tens of thousands of Palestinian residents of occupied Jerusalem who have yet to gain access to testing.

Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel - filed a petition on Wednesday to the Israeli Supreme Court on behalf of two East Jerusalem communities, Kufr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp, calling on the government to provide coronavirus testing to residents.

Kafr Aqab and Shuafat are home to about 150,000 Palestinian Jerusalem ID-holders, but have been isolated from the rest of the city by Israel’s separation wall.

As a result, they have been left out of Israel’s testing efforts in Jerusalem, which were only recently extended to Palestinian residents of the city.

"We are asking the government to provide basic access to Covid-19 health care and testing for the people living in these two neighborhoods, which, municipality-wise, belong to Jerusalem," Adalah attorney and co-author of the petition Myssana Morany told Middle East Eye.

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According to Morany, if Palestinian residents of the Shuafat camp and Kafr Aqab want to get tested for the virus, they must travel through Israeli checkpoints into Jerusalem to a testing site.

"Not only does this kind of travel pose major health risks, it is extremely difficult for certain parts of the communities, like women, children and the elderly, to access these far-away testing sites," Morany said.

In its petition, she said, Adalah "gave the government two options: either set up temporary or drive-in testing facilities in the communities themselves or provide testing kits and the appropriate equipment to the existing health facilities in Shuafat and Kafr Aqab."

The Israeli government, Morany added, has an obligation to ensure safe access to testing and proper access to emergency health care for its Palestinian citizens and permanent residents.

"If the government continues to ignore these communities, which are overcrowded and underserviced, it will negatively impact the entire effort of the country to combat the coronavirus," she said.

"This virus will not stop spreading until you treat everyone, equally."

Discrimination before Covid-19

While there is a clear disparity between Israel’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens versus its Jewish citizens during the Covid-19 crisis, experts say the emergency has only exacerbated an already existing system of discrimination.

For instance, Israel’s national emergency service, Magen David Adom (MDA), gets a police escort to access the two neighborhoods, Morany said, while Palestinian ambulances often get held up at checkpoints for hours.

"The year-round neglect of these neighborhoods, both medically and socioeconomically, makes them more vulnerable to be affected by the virus and its effects," she added.

Mahmoud al-Sheikh, head of Shuafat's local council, echoed Morany’s sentiments and said the camp’s residents are routinely neglected by both Palestinian and Israeli authorities, despite the fact that 70 percent of them have Jerusalem IDs and pay municipality and national health insurance taxes.

'If we get sick, it affects everyone'
- Mahmoud al-Sheikh, head of Shuafat’s local council

Sheikh said the camp has long suffered from a lack of services and that local organisations have stepped up to address the needs of the community during the coronavirus crisis and cover the gap left by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA.

"We've set up an emergency committee in the camp, distributed some hygiene products, fumigated the camp and tried to educate people on social distancing," Sheikh told MEE.

Still, he added, despite these efforts, tests are a vital component for fighting the spread of the disease.

"My message to the Israeli government is that the virus doesn't discriminate between Israelis and Palestinians, so why are you discriminating against us?" Sheikh asked.

"If we get sick, it affects everyone."