Cramped Palestinian refugee camps fear virus surge

The UN agency for Palestinian refugees has increased calls for assistance from donors

A second wave of coronavirus infections that has swept the Israeli-occupied West Bank has fuelled fears of a surge in overcrowded Palestinian refugee camps.

At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March, the Palestinian Authority (PA) quickly imposed a lockdown to contain infections.

But after Israel and later the PA eased restrictions in late April and May, the number of cases rose again, exacerbated by breaches of restrictions on public assemblies and movement.

One major factor was Palestinian workers' routine journey to and from jobs in neighbouring Israel, according to the PA.

Israel went into lockdown in mid-March, but after easing restrictions it started to report 1,000 to 2,000 new coronavirus infections each day and reimposed some restrictions.

The Palestinian health ministry's update on Tuesday logged more than 10,860 confirmed cases of infection since the start of the pandemic, including more than 75 deaths.

That compared with a total of fewer than 2,700 infections and seven deaths as recently as July 1.

The growing health crisis is causing concern in the camps.

The United Nations said about five million Palestinians were refugees.

They are the survivors and descendants of the more than 700,000 people who were expelled or fled their land over a few months in 1948 when Israel was founded.

More than 1.5 million of them live in camps in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

They are assisted by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides medical aid and manages schools.

In Al Amari camp, near Ramallah in the West Bank, an estimated 8,000 people live packed into less than one square kilometre.

UNRWA described the camp as suffering "significant overcrowding issues".

"There is neither room to impose distancing nor space to carry out quarantines," said Taha Al Bess, an official on the camp residents' committee.

The road at the entrance to Al Amari camp is about six metres wide but quickly narrows inside, with alleys no wider than half that.

"The streets are narrow, the buildings are very close to each other, to talk about distancing is an illusion," Mr Al Bess said.

Throughout the West Bank, occupied by Israel in 1967, around 190,000 Palestinian refugees live in 19 camps.

Few cases of sickness and no deaths have so far been recorded in Al Amari, but the camp committee is monitoring developments in the other camps.

In Jalazoun, also near Ramallah, more than 200 cases have been recorded in recent weeks and two deaths among 8,000 refugees.

In Al Fawar camp near Hebron in the southern West Bank, the data is similar.

"It is impossible to implement distancing and prevent contact between the sick and other residents," said Nael Nakhleh, a member of an emergency committee set up in Jalazoun to tackle the resurgence of infections.

A debate has started about who is responsible for managing the health emergency in the camps: the Palestinian Authority or UNRWA?

For Ahmed Hanoun, in charge of refugee affairs at the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the answer is the UN agency.

"We are trying to work with them," he told AFP, saying he was "seriously concerned" by the virus outbreaks in the camps.

In UNRWA too, there is deep concern, particularly as the pandemic arrived at a challenging time.

In 2018, the US, which had been UNRWA's main donor, announced it was ending its annual financial aid of $300 million, arguing the agency was no longer relevant 70 years after the creation of Israel.

"The situation in the camps is very worrying, especially considering the agency's financial difficulties," said Kazem Abu Khalaf, spokesman for UNRWA in the West Bank.

UNRWA has called for increased donations and emergency aid from its other donors.

In Al Amari, the residents decided to take matters into their own hands and stand at the camp's entrance to take the temperature of everyone who entered.

"UNRWA says it does not have the means; the Palestinian Authority says it does not have the means: we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place," said Mr Al Bess.

Updated: July 30, 2020 01:33 PM

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