Palestinian doctor Iltizam Morrar, 31, has a long background in activism dating back to when she was just 14 years old. Then a high school student in the village of Budrus, in Palestine’s West Bank, where her family have lived for centuries, Iltizam organised and led the 2003 non-violent resistance campaign against Israel’s concrete wall by schoolgirls in her home village, while her father and uncles led the adults in protests.
When Israeli bulldozers arrived in Budrus every morning at the crack of dawn to uproot the village’s 400-year-old olive trees and dig foundations for the wall, Morrar and her friends would run down the rocky, cactus-filled slopes and throw themselves into the bulldozer’s scoops. At considerable risk to their safety, the group of about 60 girls, some as young as nine years old, repeatedly brought the bulldozers to a halt for months. This eventually forced the state of Israel to move the wall back from the land of Budrus to the 1967 border between the West Bank and Israel.
For two years, the village became home to dozens of international activists who joined the protests against the wall, and Morrar featured prominently in the award-winning film Budrus.
Now a resident psychiatrist at the only psychiatric hospital in Palestine and one of a tiny group of three female psychiatrists in the state, Morrar is battling a new problem, the coronavirus.
She works at the Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital in the West Bank, the historic town where the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed on 5 March. Although as a psychiatry resident Morrar is not working in a Covid-19 unit, the pandemic and lockdown have affected the mental health of Palestinians, she says.
“Immediately after [the lockdown began], Bethlehem was isolated from the rest of the West Bank and people were asked to remain home. Everything stopped, from schools, universities to mosques and churches. I heard people saying they [had] never seen the city under complete curfew since the siege of Israeli occupation in 2002 and that it brings lots of difficult memories to them.”
The 2002 siege to which Morrar refers began in Jenin, 178km north of Bethlehem, when Israeli soldiers surrounded the refugee camp and bombarded it using attack helicopters and armoured bulldozers. Fifty-two Palestinians were killed over a 10-day period while Israeli soldiers prevented journalists and peace activists from entering the camp. The siege of Bethlehem began at the same time.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported at the time that Israel used “250 tanks and armoured personnel carriers, F-16 fighter jets and Apache gunships” to invade Bethlehem and two neighbouring towns, shelling many historical Christian churches such as the Catholic Santa Maria church, wounding priests and nuns. About 200 Palestinians, including members of the clergy, ran into the place of Jesus’ birth – Bethlehem’s famous Church of the Nativity – where they were trapped by Israeli forces for 39 days. Online publication Electronic Intifada reported that seven Palestinians were killed during the siege of the church and another 40 shot by snipers.
The Jenin massacre and the siege of the Church of the Nativity are two of the most harrowing memories Palestinians have of their 2002 struggle.
Suffering in the refugee camps
Bethlehem has permanent, overcrowded refugee camps such as Aida and Dheisheh in which about 19 000 people live. They were established in 1949 and 1950, respectively, by Palestinians from 45 villages in Jerusalem and Hebron who were forced to flee their homes at gunpoint by soldiers from the newly established state of Israel.
When the Covid-19 lockdown in the Bethlehem governorate began, Palestinian police officers manned checkpoints, especially at the entrances of the refugee camps, to control movement and restrict the spread of the coronavirus, said Morrar. “Since the refugee camps are very crowded and they lack water and other essential supplies, and many people were left without work and income, people came together and started donating food and sanitising equipment to those in need.”
Since the total lockdown was lifted in late May, the Palestinian Authority has reinstated it intermittently as new waves of infections were recorded. However, with the city under Israeli military occupation, like the rest of the West Bank, it has been impossible for Palestinian authorities to keep Bethlehem residents completely isolated.
“During the time of quarantine, we restricted our movement as Palestinians. But we had no control over the Israeli occupation forces, who moved around freely in Bethlehem,” Morrar said. “Israeli soldiers carried out many night raids in the Dheisheh refugee camp and many Palestinians were arrested at the time. People even witnessed Israeli soldiers spitting on doors in an attempt to terrify the Palestinian residents that the virus was spreading.”
Impact on mental health
Morrar, one of only three women psychiatrists in Palestine, entered the field after she had worked in general hospitals in Palestine. “It came to my awareness how general daily stressors, including the ones inflicted upon us by the Israeli occupation, had a huge effect on our health,” she said.
Although she does not work in a Covid-19 unit, the pandemic has resulted in a sharp rise in the number of patients admitted to Bethlehem Psychiatric Hospital. All the patients have to be tested for the virus and put in isolation to reduce the risk of it spreading. “It wasn’t an easy task since we suffered a shortage of medical equipment, PPE [personal protective equipment] and Covid-19 test kits. Isolation is a privilege that not everyone can have,” she said.
In Jerusalem, 10km from Bethlehem, Israeli soldiers prevented Palestinians from getting Covid-19 tests and “confiscated medical and food supplies intended to strengthen the people during the time of pandemic”, said Morrar.
The West Bank has been under military occupation by Israel since 1967. Israel controls the two borders it shares with Jordan as well as the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. Because Palestine has no control over its borders, it cannot import crucial medical supplies. A dire shortage of medication and medical equipment prevails, and now that there is a pandemic this includes test kits and PPE for clinical workers.
The coronavirus pandemic has had “a huge impact” on Palestinians and their mental health, said Morrar. “The uncertainty of the situation put many people under a huge pressure. Some of these people were already vulnerable, suffering from existing mental health disorders, [so] no wonder we had a rise in the number of patients admitted due to relapse. Palestinians at the moment fear what might come, with Covid-19 continuing to spread, with the lack of medication and medical equipment, and with the Israeli authority threatening to cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority. This would leave thousands of Palestinians without salaries and income.
“On the other hand, while life inside of Israel was put on hold, and school and other institutions were closed, the colonisation of Palestine did not stop, with lands being confiscated, people put in jail and killed, homes being raided and demolished,” Morrar added.
Living under military occupation, Palestinians are not hopeful that they will emerge from the pandemic unscathed. But, said Morrar, the Palestinian belief in sumud, an Arabic word meaning “steadfastness”, will get them through. As author Benay Blend explains, sumud in Palestine refers to “a mental state that leads to determined action”, a belief that Palestinians possess courage and resilience that enable them to keep resisting the Israeli occupation.
Because of her family’s background in leading the non-violent resistance against what Palestinians and others call the Apartheid Wall, sumud is second nature to Morrar. It is this steadfastness that she is summoning once again.
“It became clear to all of us Palestinians that we should stay strong and steadfast in the face of the corona pandemic and in the face of the occupation, as only the end of both will guarantee us safety and freedom. We will continue to raise our voices against occupation while doing our best to help and defend our own people against the virus,” she said.