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June 24, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9415

Journalist Who Warned About Palestinian Authority's Inept Covid Response Dies Of Covid

June 24, 2021
Palestine | Special Dispatch No. 9415

'Abd Al-Nasser Al-Najjar, a senior Palestinian journalist and a columnist for the Al-Ayyam daily, died on June 23, 2021, at the age of 61, of covid complications after contracting the virus several months ago.[1] Al-Najjar, who served in the past as the head of the Palestinian Journalists Union and as a lecturer on communications at Al-Quds University, was an independent thinker who voiced critical opinions on multiple issues, including the character of Hamas' regime in Gaza, the persecution of Christian minorities in the Arab world, the issuing of extremist fatwas that distort the tenets of Islam, and violations of press freedom in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Over the years MEMRI published excerpts from several of his articles on these issues.[2]

In 2020, Al-Najjar devoted two of his columns to warning about the inadequate response to the covid pandemic in the Palestinian territories. He expressed concern that the Palestinian public's disregard of the covid restrictions, coupled with the PA's laxity in enforcing them, would result in disaster. Stating that the Palestinians need "a leadership capable of making difficult decisions in real time and putting out the spreading fire," he asked: "Are we willing to bury [our] dear ones without saying goodbye because of lack of compliance [with the guidelines] and irresponsible behavior?"   


'Abd Al-Nasser Al-Najjar (Source: Al-Ayyam, Palestinian Authority, June 24, 2021).

The following are excerpts from two articles published by Al-Najjar in 2020 about the PA's inept response to  the Covid pandemic.  

Al-Najjar: Hebron Is "The Wuhan Of Palestine"; Our Rate Of Infection Is One Of The Highest In The World

In a July, 2020 column,[3] Al-Najjar wrote that the covid situation in the PA is far worse than depicted by the Palestinian media, and that the PA is negligent in tackling the Palestinian public's widespread disregard for the emergency covid guidelines and in setting up an efficient testing mechanism.  He wrote: "The night of Sunday, May 25, 2020, was packed with events... That night, I was in the city of Hebron. My journalist colleagues invited me to an iftar [Ramadan break-fast] feast at a restaurant. There, I asked a respected friend about the situation in the district, and about the lockdown. He said: 'Things are out of control.'

"During the iftar I was informed about a mass march heading towards the district [headquarters] shouting slogans about fully opening up the city. To preserve the public order, the marchers' demands were met, on condition that the cautionary guidelines were strictly followed. At that time, the mosques were full of worshippers, despite the Ministry of Religious Endowment's instructions to pray at home. Also during the lockdown, some people took advantage of their situation – that is, parts of Hebron under Palestinian control and parts under occupation control – to avoid following the guidelines, and held Friday prayers in mosques under occupation control, with the participation of many people from the nearby neighborhoods.

"This is how it was in Hebron from the week before the end of Ramadan to the government's [May 25] announcement of the lifting of the lockdown on condition that the rules ensuring caution were followed.

"With regard to prayers for the holiday [i.e. Eid Al-Fitr], however much we talk about [how openly the guidelines were flouted] it will never be an exaggeration.

"Where are the preventive measures, in light of the huge numbers of residents [who attended] weddings that were postponed, and funerals – suddenly and without warning undoing all the achievements of which the government was so proud, because we thought that we had accomplished what the great powers could not. Now these achievements seem like nothing more than a false hallucination. Today, Hebron is the 'Wuhan of Palestine.' The number of people infected in Hebron relative to the number of residents is perhaps the highest in the world. Gradually, we are hearing voices demanding government measures to stop the catastrophe, by means of quarantine and by means of [purchasing] ventilators and equipment for the hospitals, and we have started to quickly follow up after events in an attempt to control the spread of the pandemic. But the important question now is have we have lost control. Is this our last chance? No one has a satisfactory answer. Is the number of cases higher than the number published? Maybe, but there is no scientific proof of this.

"The rapid spread [of the disease] in more than one focal point has gobbled up the map of focal points, the map of those who came into contact with patients, and the map of cases. At first, when they announced coronavirus infections and were taking samples from anyone who came into contact with a patient, whether or not they were [showing signs of] infection, the numbers [of people being tested] were limited to the [Palestinian] Health Ministry's [capability] to carry out the tests. Now, the situation has changed. The ministry cannot test people who come into contact with patients, and the number of cases [in Hebron] is in the thousands. Today, tests are done only on people who show clear symptoms, and they receive the results four or five days later because of the [lab] workers' overload.

"Yesterday, I was told that a first-degree family member was infected. Bearing in mind that he is a doctor and in charge of an UNRWA clinic at the Al-Fawwar refugee camp, and also heads the coronavirus emergency committee, I called him to find out the details. He said that the situation overall was much worse than depicted in the media, because everyone, without exception, is being careless, that the number of cases was doubling every day, and that some of the test [results] were arriving late. He said that last week an old woman had died after becoming infected, and that the Health Ministry had officially announced this. Less than half an hour later, in the home of the same family, her sister in law, who was also ill [with the virus] died, but she was not transferred to the hospital because her [test] result had not yet been received. After her death, it turned out that her [test] result was positive, but she was not registered as having died of the coronavirus.

"Every day, hundreds [more] are infected. Maybe the lockdown regulations will slow the spread [of the virus], but as long as there are those who act irresponsibly or are certain that they will not be punished, the rapid spread will not be stopped.

"Is it not a catastrophe that event halls in the suburbs of Jerusalem closed only the day before yesterday [July 9]? Where is the PA? Where are the [political] parties? Where are the [PA] strike forces? How many weddings were held recently, up until two days ago, in the knowledge that 80% of the residents of the Jerusalem suburbs are originally from Hebron [and thus the wedding guests are almost all coming from that city]? Yesterday, the taxi drivers threatened to violate quarantine and go back to work if no solution was found for their situation. Even before that, [there were similar] announcements by businessmen... Likewise, the laborers [working] in Israel did not obey [the PA's] decisions.

"Our general situation... calls for immediate leadership on the ground that is capable of making difficult decisions in real time and putting out the spreading fire. If this does not happen, we will face only one possibility: [the testing of] the theory of herd immunity. Are we willing to bury [our] dear ones without saying goodbye because of lack of compliance [with the guidelines] and irresponsible behavior?"

Al-Najjar: Unless The PA Starts Enforcing Covid Restrictions, We Are Headed For Disaster

In a September 19, 2020 column,[4] Al-Najjar complained that, despite the high infection rate in the PA territories, the Palestinian public remained indifferent to the danger and seemed to be counting on attaining "herd immunity." He wrote: "[At first,] we Palestinians launched full-force into the fight against the pandemic… and thought we were winning. But suddenly we became breathless, and could no longer compete or even keep up with the global pace [of fighting the disease]. In the first weeks [of the pandemic], when we were still talking about a handful of cases, we were fearful and cautious in everything we did. More than that, contracting [Covid-19] became a social stigma, like contracting scabies, so much so that the funerals of the first victims left a special impression. The strict lockdown measures carried out in that initial phase were effective, even though they badly harmed the [already] weak [Palestinian] economy. For the sake of public health, the growth and prosperity of some [economic] sectors were sacrificed…

"When summer came, the catastrophe arrived, as the government faced pressures from every direction to fully open up the economy, renew all business [activity], [allow] the opening of banquet halls and bereavement [tents], and even bring back sports [matches]. [As a result] we soon found ourselves losing the war against the pandemic. The number [of cases] began rising, not by single-digit [numbers] but by two-digit [numbers], and not only in one governorate but in all the [PA] governorates…

"The government's intervention [measures] were hesitant. It announced precautions, chiefly social distancing [measures], mask-wearing, the closure of venues, and restrictions on [the size of weddings and funerals. But most people ignored this, despite warnings that offenders would be prosecuted and punished. These punishments remained on paper only, except in rare cases, when [the PA carried them out] to save face. The government's directives looked like they came from another planet, and precautions were taken very rarely - so much so that in some governorates there is no sign of these precautions, despite the immense surge in the number of cases. Every week the government issued a press announcement stressing [the need for] precautions and warning against disaster, but nobody listened - and now we are marching, with strange indifference, towards herd immunity.

"One evening last week I visited Hebron, where the largest number of cases and deaths have been recorded, compared to other [PA] governorates. [I saw] wedding celebrations everywhere, and people crowding without restraint. When I asked about this, I was told… that things were out of control. On Friday morning, I was surprised to find that some mosques were holding services inside, not in the courtyard, in violation of the Endowments Ministry's directives. This proves that the government directives remain on paper, while the situation on the ground is completely different…

"The official Palestinian data [on the number of cases and deaths] reflect the catastrophe clearly [enough, and] health experts stress that the real [figures] are much higher. This is due to the limited number of tests, and also to the fact that many young children contract the disease without developing symptoms, but they do infect others. [Now] Gaza has suddenly sunk into [the pit of] the pandemic as well. The [Hamas] authorities there kept talking our ears off for months, [boasting] that there weren't any cases [in Gaza], or only a handful of cases, and that quarantine measures were being enforced with absolute strictness. This encouraged the Gazans to abandon all precautions, and now suddenly… dozens of people have contracted the disease, and nobody can control or limit [its spread]…

"The figures recorded yesterday in most countries of the world indicate that Palestine has the highest [rate of] infection [compared to the size of its population], even twice as high as the rate of infection in the countries listed. We are way over the red line, yet we continue to wander aimlessly. Catastrophe is looming, and if all of us - especially the governors and security apparatuses - do not strictly enforce the law, hold [offenders] accountable and implement the government's [directives] in full and without negligence, we will find ourselves running, out of ignorance and stupidity, towards [counting on] herd immunity. When that happens, we will drown and clutch at straws. But remember that the entire world, including those closest to us [i.e., the Arab countries], is turning its back to us."

 

[1] Al-Ayyam (Palestinian Authority), June 24, 2021.

[2] See MEMRI reports: Inquiry & Analysis No. 862 - Public Protest In Ramallah And Fears Of 'Palestinian Spring' – July 26, 2012; Special Dispatch No. 2374 - Palestinian Intellectuals Protest against Fatwas that Harm Islam – July 4, 2009;

Special Dispatch No. 2112 - Palestinian Columnist: Muslims Are Harming Christian Culture – January 25, 2009; Special Dispatch No. 1633 - Fears in PA: Gaza May Turn into Taliban-Style Emirate – June 27, 2007; Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 359 - "We Are Facing a Second Nakba"- Reactions in the Palestinian Press to the Hamas-Fatah Clashes – June 3, 2007.

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