WASHINGTON / HEBRON, WEST BANK - As Palestinian authorities step up their efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus in the West Bank, a garment factory in Hebron city has shifted its production from clothing items to masks and protective suits against the pandemic.
Al-Mahariq factory is operating seven days a week to meet local demand for protective equipment in the Palestinian territories. Its workers say they hope their products can help their community feel safer while authorities report a lack of supplies to fight the contagious virus.
“The virus is spreading all over the world, and it is closer to our country,” Amir Zaloum, the sales manager of al-Mahariq, told VOA, adding that as a father he felt responsible for helping “the sons and daughters” in his country.
“We have to be careful and protect our people and employees. So, we have started to produce the protective jumpsuits to meet the needs of the market and the employees in the ministries, security and police officers.”
The factory works 24 hours a day to produce between 200 and 300 suits and over 3,000 masks daily. One of its workers, Amir Al Shiehk Durra, said the staff run different shifts to meet local demand in Hebron.
“I came here 20 days ago to work in this factory as they needed more people to help in making masks. The demand for masks is increasing and the number of staff joining the work is also increasing daily,” said Durra.
Continued operation during the pandemic means the workers are more vulnerable to contract the virus. The factory is taking precautionary measures to ensure workplace safety. Still, many workers remain concerned but say they see no other option.
“Of course I am concerned every day I leave home to work,” one of the workers, Badr Khalil Durra, told VOA. “But this is an emergency and we don’t have an alternative in Palestine but to make these masks, otherwise people won’t have any protective masks.”
The U.S. government Thursday said it was giving $5 million in assistance to help Palestinian hospitals and households cope with the coronavirus. Announcing the aid in a tweet, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said “the USA, as the world’s top humanitarian aid donor, is committed to assisting the Palestinian people, & others worldwide, in this crisis.”
The humanitarian assistance came as Palestinian health authorities earlier Thursday said that the number of registered COVID-19 cases had risen to 291, of them 62 recovered and two dead. The authorities said they were struggling to maintain the needed medical supplies, mainly because Israel is holding funds to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and because of U.S. aid cuts to the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
UNRWA was founded after the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949 to aid and protect Palestinian refugees. The agency provides education and health services to registered Palestinian refugees in West Bank and Gaza, as well as refugees living in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. As of 2019, over 5.6 million Palestinian refugees were registered with the agency.
The U.S. was one of the biggest contributors to UNRWA until August 2018 when it announced that it was no longer committed to funding to the agency. The U.S. has accused the UNRWA of misconduct and said the agency needed to reform its “irredeemably flawed operations.”
The U.N. General Assembly in December renewed UNRWA’s mandate for another three years despite U.S. and Israeli objections. Also, to offset the part of U.S. cuts, Canada, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have stepped up their funding to the agency. However, the agency said it was reducing its services and needed more support to compensate for the U.S. aid cut.
At Aida Camp in the West Bank, one of the refugee camps affected by the cuts, local activists have turned to community work to help those in need during the pandemic. Saeed al-Azzeh, the head of the Popular Committee in Aida Camp, told VOA that local activists through a campaign were collecting food and sanitizers to distribute them among refugees.
“UNRWA has abandoned its responsibility toward Palestinian refugees in these circumstances. We called the UNRWA for help and they told us they didn’t have anything to help us with; not moral support, protection kits, disinfection products, food or medication. Therefore, we rallied with whatever we have to fulfill the needs in the camp,” al-Azzeh told VOA.
Some experts predict a worse outlook for the Palestinian territories in the coming weeks as authorities fail to contain the virus because of limited resources. They charge that the conflict with Israel has held back the Palestinian health care system.
The Palestinian Authority has been in dire straits for months and has been hard pressed to offer Palestinians basic services as Israel continues to hold about $140 million of their tax revenues. Israeli authorities say they fear the fund could be used to support families of Palestinians who committed “terror” acts against Israel.
Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and scholar at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, said that Israel needed to do more to make sure that Palestinians have access to health care during the pandemic.
“UNRWA provides primary care to Palestinians, the secondary and tertiary care are provided by the PA, and two-thirds of PA’s budget comes from customs revenues that Israel collects at its ports and borders on behalf of the PA. The PA depends on Israel’s transfer of these funds in order to pay its public-sector workers including health workers,” Hassan told VOA.
Hassan said that between 30,000 and 40,000 Palestinians work inside Israel during the pandemic. She said many of those workers complain their worksites are infected and they are not given the proper care by their employers when they are sick.
“We had incidents where patients were dropped off at a checkpoint without coordination with the Palestinian side. The Palestinians asked for their workers to come back because of the failure of coordination in dealing with the sick workers that have been in Israel,” she added.
Additionally, in Gaza, the Hamas militant group has accused Israel of blocking testing kits and ventilators from entering the small strip where over 1.8 million Palestinians live. The group’s leader, Yahya Sinwar, earlier this month vowed to “stop the breathing of 6 million Israelis” if Israel continued to block ventilators into Gaza.
“Israel is conditioning the entry of ventilators to Gaza on Hamas agreeing to release Israeli prisoners held by Hamas, and we are seeing negotiations taking place around health care,” the Carnegie Endowment’s Hassan said, adding that an Israeli blockade on Gaza since 2007 has decimated the strip’s economy and ability to respond to any health crisis.