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Palestinian volunteers set up their own coronavirus checkpoints after Israeli restrictions hamper official action

Israel is able to prevent Palestinian police from accessing rural areas [AFP]

Date of publication: 7 April, 2020

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The volunteers operating the 'barriers of love' hope to stop a widespread outbreak in the occupied West Bank.
Ordinary Palestinians have set up Covid-19 checkpoints in rural areas of the occupied West Bank that the Palestinian police force is unable to reach due to Israeli restrictions.

Lawyer Moayad Samha is one of dozens of civilians deployed along rural roads to enforce the new controls and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Some fear the civilian checkpoints will foster resentment among Palestinians, as villages with no Covid-19 cases turn away residents from places that have recorded an outbreak. 

But Samha told AFP that he and others doing roadside monitoring were striving to protect the whole West Bank from a full-scale epidemic. 

"We are trying to detect the virus as much as is possible with our limited means," Samha said at the checkpoint in his home village of Ein Yabroud.   

Following the Oslo accords with Israel signed in the 1990s, the Palestinian Authority controls major cities in the West Bank, but the Israeli military controls 60 percent of the territory.

Palestinian police cannot enter many rural villages without first coordinating with the Israelis, who can refuse permission. 

Those Israeli restrictions, and chronic cash shortages faced by the Palestinian government, have hindered efforts to contain a potential coronavirus outbreak.

So the Palestinian police have called on volunteers to help do the job. 

The Palestinian interior ministry has approved the scheme, calling it key to containment efforts.   

'Barrier of love'

The West Bank, which has been under near total lockdown for weeks, has 250 confirmed Covid-19 cases. 

Ein Yabroud has no confirmed cases but the village of Dayr Jarir, roughly 1.5 kilometres (one mile) to the east, has several coronavirus patients. 

Drivers who approached the Ein Yabroud checkpoint on Monday were all stopped.

Samha told anyone with an elevated temperature to hold their breath for 10 to 15 seconds, in an attempt to see if they cough or feel discomfort.

Volunteers operate a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank [AFP]

If someone presented possible Covid-19 symptoms, he called officials in nearby Ramallah to conduct a test. 

Other volunteers checked travellers' IDs to determine their place of origin.

People from towns or cities with many confirmed cases were turned away. 

Mohammed Hawih, who is in charge of the village's checkpoints, told AFP the procedures differed depending on the person.  

"Residents of some places are allowed to stop in the village to buy things, but those from other towns and villages are not," he said.

But he pointed out the Ein Yabroud checkpoint is called the "barrier of love" and was designed for the protection of everyone. 

Workers returning home

Hawih and others said civilian checkpoints were a response to persistent new infections in small villages and refugee camps far from main Palestinian cities. 

Volunteers in different locations communicate via the Zello app, which works like a walkie-talkie.

Some villages have even produced uniforms for their civilian protectors, with checkpoint staff in Dura al-Qara, adjacent to Ein Yabrud, wearing yellow outfits emblazoned with the village council's name.

[Click to enlarge]

At the Ein Yabroud checkpoint, a key priority has been preventing the Israeli army from entering the village during patrols or raids. 

There are more than 9,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Israel and Palestinians fear that Israeli troops might cause further West Bank infections.

Hawih claimed to have forced soldiers to turn back by blocking their path on several occasions. 

Concern has also risen about a possible surge in West Bank infections caused by the thousands of Palestinians who have returned home in recent days from jobs in Israel.

When a large truck arrived in Dura al-Qara on Monday, the driver was told to open the rear doors. His ID and destination were checked before he was allowed to pass.

Checkpoint staff said they were on the lookout for anyone trying to sneak through the village after returning from Israel, instead of entering mandatory quarantine. 

Abdul Rahman Hussein, an official at the checkpoint, said looking for returnees from Israel was a civic duty. 

"Our brothers in the central government can't reach us in this area, but if there is something urgent they come."

So far, he said, by working with other local checkpoints, "we have caught four sick people" seeking to avoid quarantine. 

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