Covid-weary Palestinians sneak to Tel Aviv’s beaches

Covid-weary Palestinians sneak to Tel Aviv’s beaches

Locked down in her Ramallah home for much of this sweltering summer, sick for weeks from Covid-19, Faten promised herself that when she recovered she would go to the sea.

It had been more than 30 years since the 58-year-old Palestinian grandmother had splashed around on a beach in Kuwait, before the first Gulf war forced her to return to the occupied and landlocked West Bank.

Determined to get to the beach — an hour’s drive but on the other side of the wall that separates the territory from Israel — she, her four daughters and their 10 children last week made an illegal crossing to the beaches of Jaffa, an Arab suburb of Tel Aviv.

“It is amazing — I can’t believe I am near the sea. I’ve never seen anything like this before,” exclaimed Faten, as she approached the promenade.

Thousands of Palestinians have made a similar, illicit trip to Jaffa, Haifa and Acre, the Arab beach towns within Israel, camouflaging themselves among their cousins and friends. They’ve craved an escape, exhausted by lockdowns in the West Bank, where the coronavirus has ravaged the economy and cancelled the weddings and festivals that tie the close-knit communities together. West Bank residents have also been trapped inside the territory by its border to Jordan, a frontier also controlled by Israel, being shut for months during the pandemic.

The family from the West Bank during a visit to one of the beaches in Jaffa alongside Israeli bathers © Heidi Levine

With Israel’s second nationwide lockdown looming on Friday, these beach trips will become more difficult, if not impossible. “Every day I get a hundred calls asking when the next trip is,” said an Arab-Israeli woman, who organises the popular illicit trips, leveraging her Israeli ID to get through checkpoints. “I don’t have enough buses!”

In recent weeks, coronavirus cases have surged in both Israel and the Palestinian territories. Israel now ranks worst in the world for new infections per capita, with more than 5,000 new cases reported on Tuesday. The World Health Organization registered 788 new cases on Tuesday in the Palestinian cities.

With limited hospital capacity, the Palestinian Authority, which administers the major West Bank cities and towns in an uneasy partnership with Israel’s military, has depended on extensive lockdowns to halt the spread of the virus. Some 37,000 Palestinians have fallen ill and 224 have died. A second lockdown there is also imminent.

Israel operates a complex permit regime for Palestinians, described by human rights groups as exploitative and arbitrary. Outside of those granted for annual religious festivals, just under 90,000 permits are issued to workers, mostly to young men who work at construction sites, the Israeli defence ministry says. A few thousand receive humanitarian permits for medical treatment and a few hundred businessmen get more expansive permits that allow them to use the airport and pass freely at checkpoints.

In response to questions about the number of Palestinians crossing to the beach, the Israeli military said in a statement: “The Israel Defense Forces views with great severity the illegal crossing into Israeli territory and takes actions against it in accordance with the assessment of the situation on the ground and the military forces in the area.”

The illegal crossings wax and wane depending on how hard the IDF cracks down on them. This year, for reasons that are still unclear, they seem to have been both easier and more common.

Faten, who did not want her full name published, said she had applied multiple times for permission to visit extended family within Israel but had been denied. “This is occupation,” she said. “They control the air, the water, the land — everything.”

Instead, the family paid a bus driver with East Jerusalem license plates to load them and around a dozen others into a Volvo. They pulled up to a hole in the fence, and slipped through it, one by one, while the bus driver drove through a checkpoint and met them on the other side.

Their first stop was a safari park in Ramat Gan, the largest zoo in the Middle East, next to high-tech office complexes and Israel’s biggest diamond exchange. “Wow, just wow,” cooed one of Faten’s grandsons, his eyes growing wide. He’d seen a bear once in the zoo in Qalqilya, a West Bank town, but nothing like this.

“It’s not easy, you know, to see all this,” said Faten, referring to the gleaming skyscrapers, eight-lane highways and exclusive neighbourhoods. Her parents were expelled from a northern village in the 1948 war that gave birth to Israel. “I found myself on the bus, thinking ‘How did we lose all this land?’ ”

But for now — after 30 years — she was on the beach, and giddy with excitement. She splashed around in the water, dressed in her conservative Friday best, her grandchildren squealing and throwing mud at each other.

Faten plays in the water of the Mediterranean Sea for the first time in 30 years © Heidi Levine

Her 16-year-old granddaughter, Batul was intoxicated by the sight of so much water. “Before this, I’d only seen a swimming pool,” she said. Nearby Israeli women sunned themselves in bikinis, smoking weed with their boyfriends, beers on their picnic mats.

“I wish I could have come alone, maybe with my friends, to see the nightlife. Maybe I’d wear something less traditional,” she said, in her stylish, but conservative, trousers and shirt, with a scarf around her hair.

“No borders, no walls, no checkpoints,” she said. “Everything seems possible when you look at the sea.”

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