Lydia Woolley, Tulane University Class of 2021
Did the first wave of COVID-19 impact the relationship between the Israeli government and Arab East Jerusalemites? If so, how? Is this change sustainable?
I interviewed three NGO leaders in East Jerusalem to answer these questions. Each of them worked with Arab East Jerusalemites and the Jerusalem municipality to provide COVID-19 relief to East Jerusalem. While the relationship between the Israeli government and Arab East Jerusalemites is strained, NGOs helped each side navigate this relationship to prevent illness and death and NGO workers thus witnessed the pandemic’s political impact firsthand.
Before reading, scroll to the bottom of the page for a timeline of the COVID-19 response in East Jerusalem.
My first interviewee (who wished to remain anonymous, so I refer to him as Thomas) thought there was potential for a more stable, direct connection between the Municipality and Arab East Jerusalemites but did not see a dramatic improvement in the relationship between the two during the first half of 2020. He posited that “it’s too early to say there’s a shift” and if relations were improving “that’s going to take a while. We’re talking about many years that one event or even two months are not going to make change.” He believed, however, that a less strained relationship might have been on its way. This shift lay in the Municipality’s new attitude toward providing services to Arab East Jerusalemites:
“What did create some shift – I’m not sure it’s a large shift – was the way specifically the Jerusalem Municipality treated the situation. Many times, the government uses such things as a way to show sovereignty; ‘see, we are there, we are doing the work, this is because East Jerusalem is a part of Israel forever and ever.’ I must say that that was not the spirit of the municipality [during the pandemic]. When the municipality did things in East Jerusalem, they said ‘we do it because we are supposed to provide services, that’s what we do.’ And people listened and have seen it over there.”
While he emphasized that building trust is a gradual process, he saw potential for change based on the Municipality’s new outlook: it is more important to provide for Arab East Jerusalemites than to signal Israel’s sovereignty over them. According to Thomas, Arab East Jerusalemites recognized this shift and respected it.
It is important to highlight, however, that Thomas did not attribute this change entirely to the pandemic’s impact. Instead, he believed that if the Municipality continued to “sincerely provide services, I think it will change the situation.” What he observed was a gradual shift in the Municipality’s posture toward Arab East Jerusalemites. If the changes continue past the pandemic, they have the potential to foster more reliable bonds or normalcy between the Municipality and its residents in East Jerusalem.
Middle East Monitor
As she navigated the fragmented trust and complicated connections between Arab East Jerusalemites, the Municipality, and civil society during the pandemic, Markose did not see a dramatic decrease in tensions. In our interview, she stated plainly “I wouldn’t say that I’ve seen so much of a shift.” Markose did, however, describe a slow thawing of tensions, explaining that “I think that there has been a process of warming to the municipality for specific neighborhoods for some time, and that just continued throughout corona.” She qualified this by emphasizing that some residents of East Jerusalem, which she is not, might disagree. She also highlighted the fact that residents of villages with higher poverty and policing, like Isawiya, were less likely to warm up to the Municipality than neighborhoods with a high percentage of Israeli citizenship, like Beit Safafa. In the end, Markose largely aligned with Thomas: gradual changes took place which had the potential to create lasting closeness between Arab East Jerusalemites and the Jerusalem Municipality. These changes, however, were not uniform and had little connection to the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic, Djemal did not observe major shifts in the relationship between the Municipality and East Jerusalemites, but did note that East Jerusalemites seemed more willing to call upon the Municipality for relief services. To Djemal, this willingness accelerated because of the natural tendency to unite in the face of an existential threat:
“I think that that sense of figuring out what we do here and how we live together despite it all is something which is accelerated during COVID, where it suddenly seems so silly to say we’re not going to help [or to say] we’re not going to engage with the municipality or with organizations who work with the municipality because of anti-normalization when there’s really significant needs staring us right in the face.”
But, like Markose and Thomas, Djemal observed these changes before the beginning of the pandemic. He explained that “these [are] processes that are taking place anyway” and that, in spite of them, “normalization is always present and the anti-normalization movement is always present.”
As the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic waged, the push and pull of tensions between Arab East Jerusalemites and the Israeli government subsided, albeit minimally. While the government was unwilling to fully provide for Arab East Jerusalemites in the beginning, they were nudged into compliance by civil society and an attentive mayor. However, this shift does not appear to be major or necessarily lasting. Thinking back to Markose’s explanation of “warming” relations that started materializing pre-COVID-19 and Thomas’ description of the Municipality’s more sincere attitude toward Arab East Jerusalemites, it appears that, for some time, the Municipality and Arab East Jerusalemites have been growing closer. During the pandemic, this closeness accelerated slightly as the Municipality and Arab East Jerusalemites took advantage of pre-existing connections – namely civil society – between them. However, it is unlikely that the pandemic was the only player in this acceleration or that the need for COVID-19 relief has de-stigmatized normalization between the Municipality and Arab East Jerusalemites.