'Barrier of love': Palestinian civilians set up virus checkpoints

Hossam Ezzedine
1 / 4
Palestinian volunteers measuring the temperature of people entering the village of Ain Yabrud near Ramallah

Wearing a face mask and an orange vest while brandishing a thermometer, Palestinian Moayad Samha looks similar to the countless others manning COVID-19 checkpoints across the world.

But Samha does not work for the Palestinian Authority -- he is a lawyer and one of dozens of civilians deployed along rural roads in the occupied West Bank to enforce coronavirus controls.

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 territory 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 agreements with Israel in the 1990s, the Palestinian government controls major cities in the West Bank, but the Israeli army 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 the virus.

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.

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.

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 troops from the Jewish state 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.