Isolation a double-edged sword for West Bank’s Bedouin herders

A Palestinian bedouin man looks after his sheep and goats amid concerns about the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in al-Ubeidiya town near Bethlehem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank April 3, 2020. REUTERS/Mustafa Ganeyeh

AL UBEIDIYA, West Bank (Reuters) – Bedouin herders in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, already isolated by virtue of their nomadic lifestyle, have become more cut off than ever from ordinary Palestinian life since the coronavirus outbreak began.

That isolation is a double-edged sword. They say their mobility makes them less vulnerable to catching the infection, but a territory-wide lockdown imposed to slow the spread of the disease means they are no longer able to sell their farm produce in local villages.

Some 30,000 Palestinians live in the pastoral encampments scattered across the West Bank, where sheep are herded along uninhabited hills and rocky valleys.

They have largely been spared the restrictions imposed in towns and villages, where 240 cases of COVID-19 and one fatality have been documented.

“This is why the Bedouin lifestyle is better than the cities,” said Salameh Safi, 75, a shepherd on a donkey tending his flock near Bethlehem and sporting a red-and-white keffiyeh to shield his eyes from the early spring sun.

But Mohammad Ishak, 53, a Bedouin near Jericho in the Jordan Valley, said he could no longer gain access to nearby communities to sell cheese and other sheep products.

“We will suffer losses because the farming sector has taken a hit,” he said.

“We can’t reach Ramallah or any other city to sell,” added Sulaiman al-Zaher, 65, another Bedouin near Jericho.

Ali Abed Rabbo, general director of preventive medicine at the Palestinian Health Ministry, told Reuters the herders’ lifestyle might put them at an advantage in terms of not catching the virus – “but on condition none of them mixes with residents of the cities and the villages.”

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