Notes on normality

Politics

‘Are things back to normal in Jerusalem now?’ was a question I was frequently asked over the summer by well wishing friends and family. For them the news headlines had faded away when Israel and Hamas agreed a ceasefire in May, but despite that, I’m not sure anyone has ever accurately used the word ‘normal’ to describe Jerusalem in its entire history.

The police have largely left Sheikh Jarrah for now but the future of the families that were facing eviction hasn’t been settled and the Israeli occupation marches on, at times a slow and silent creep and at other times noisily jolting forwards.

Over the summer attention shifted towards the neighbourhood of Silwan where around 85 Palestinian families have spent decades defending their homes from eviction or demolition. Earlier this month, 16 more Palestinian homes were demolished in Silwan as the fate of others was put on hold. Silwan is a neighbourhood that sits tantalisingly close to the Jewish Quarter and gaining ground there is of strategic importance to Israel as it seeks to weaken the Palestinian hold on East Jerusalem. If ever there was an example of a war being waged brick by brick, stone by stone: it is here.

There is also bubbling discontent domestically, with support for the Palestinian Authority (PA)  draining away dramatically over the past few months. Palestinians were not impressed when President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled what would have been the first elections in 15 years which were due to take place in May. The PA’s popularity then sunk further when they were absent from the recent flair up in violence, providing neither leadership nor support. More worrying than claims of weakness or incompetence however is the growing concern over their human rights violations and brutality.

The name Nizar Banat has become famous here for tragic reasons. He was a Palestinian activist, who was very outspoken in his criticism of the PA. In June he was arrested and beaten so badly, that he died. In the protests that have followed his death, the Palestinian authorities have chosen to use disproportional force and to arrest people without due cause, fuelling a cycle of growing frustrations. There is yet to be any sign of accountability for his death.

Last week a group of influential civil society organisations published a statement calling on the President and Prime Minister to resign and saying they would not cooperate with the PA anymore. Many of these organisations are delivering projects using international aid money and diplomatic missions may feel the pressure to speak out more strongly against the lack of transparency and accountability within the PA.

Looking out towards the Old City of Jerusalem from near Mt of Olives: a beautiful view to break up a heavy subject!

Health

Covid-19 remains a hot topic across Israel and Palestine and despite Israel leading the vaccine race earlier in the year it has not proven immune to the effects of the delta variant. The seven-day average last week in Israel was 8000 new cases per day – as high as any of the previous peaks. The questions this week have been – what do kids need to do to return to school? and should all adults be getting in line for the booster (third) vaccine?

Israeli schools are due to return on 1 September and in an (inconvenient for some) twist will only have eight school days during September due to the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot which all fall over the coming weeks. There are calls for the opening to be delayed and it’s not clear if this would cause Palestinian and international schools to also close. Last week many children aged 3-12 were called to have serological blood tests as a pre-requisite for returning to school but the scheme proved chaotic. Luckily for us, the international school my kids attend went back last Monday with sensible COVID-19 prevention measures in place, but no additional testing[1] and the parents are sitting with bated breath hoping that we can at least enjoy the 10 non-holiday days that we are expecting…

In another impressive feat of efficiency, Israel launched the first COVID-19 vaccine booster campaign in the world at the end of July and is now offering the third jab to all over 30s. The science seems to suggest that taking it is a good idea, but many are struggling ethically especially after the WHO came out against the booster, when many poorer countries are still struggling to administer a first dose.

For me, the key stat was that the first two vaccines originally gave 95% immunity but that had dropped to 64% by July. The people I have discussed it with have generally concluded that yes, we would rather that someone else received a first vaccine in place of our third, but not taking it risks contracting the virus and passing it on to potentially vulnerable people. We conclude there is no need to be first in line but that over the coming weeks we will probably all take it.

And that is what normality looks like in Jerusalem at the moment. Next week the blog is back to West Bank adventures and the story of a Beit Hanina chocolate maker that is worth knowing about.


[1] Note – our trip back to the UK over the summer required 5 PCR tests

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