The first Palestinian fatality from COVID-19 was on 26 March. A sixty-year-old woman from Biddu, north of Jerusalem passed away as a result of the virus. By the end of March, some 117 people tested positive for the disease, though the exact number of those suffering-but unable to get tested-is likely to be much higher.
As is the case elsewhere in the world, while the immediate-impact of this pandemic is harsh enough, the real disaster scenario – widespread contagion and high numbers of deaths – will likely only occur if the national health apparatus is overwhelmed.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has sought to avoid this scenario by closely coordinating with Israel and imposing a state of emergency manifest in a series of harsh restrictive measures on the population. Governments around the world have taken similar steps – including in most advanced democracies – and while they are generally accepted as necessary, also raise questions about potential government overreach and the possibility of abuse of power.
However, in the West Bank, where the population is ruled over by a belligerent foreign occupation and a hapless, albeit vindictive and undemocratic local elite, these measures carry a different political and social weight (especially given that the last such state of emergency was in 2007 and used as a cover for various abuses of power by the PA’s security forces).
But the real danger zone is in Gaza. Should the small, densely populated Strip succumb to a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus, the already overstretched and under-resourced Healthcare system would collapse very rapidly. Thus far, the only recorded cases have been confined to a small number of returning travellers and those who had direct interactions with them.
Hamas, who rules the Strip, has imposed a strict quarantine regime – three weeks in one of 24 facilities – on all those who entered since 15 March.
Moreover, the Gazan Fire Service has been used to hose down public areas, while large gatherings-including religious ceremonies, weddings and funerals-have been cancelled, cafes and restaurants closed, and non-urgent medical procedures suspended.
By the end of March, the total number of cases in the Gaza Strip had reached 10, according to the Ministry of Health. The real danger lies ahead, however. According to a recent report by the International Crisis Group: “Some estimates suggest that as much as a quarter or half of any population is vulnerable to contracting the disease, and that 20 per cent of these people will require hospitalisation”.
If these estimates are accurate, the total number of Gazans who require hospitalization will overwhelm the health service’s capacity by some 40 times. (The WHO estimates, quoted by the Crisis Group, suggest there will be at least 100,000 Gazans in need of care, though there are only about 2,500 beds in the Strip’s hospitals combined).
Other critical material is similarly in short supply-from personal protective gear to fully functional ventilators and intensive care equipment.
Beyond the pressing concern of those who might suffer the direct impact of COVID-19 Gazan society, it is already under considerable strain in terms of its access to basic necessities.
In stark contrast to the concerns of those of us in the Global North who were mildly inconvenienced by temporary shortages of a few items in our otherwise plentifully stocked supermarkets, the main worry for Gaza is not a food shortage, but food insecurity. Most often, this is a product of the desperate levels of poverty in the Gazan society (where 80% or the population depends on humanitarian aid).
These conditions are almost entirely the product of Israel’s 13 year-long siege of the Gaza Strip. And this policy continues to exacerbate the urgent problem. As Gisha, an Israeli NGO that campaigns for freedom of movement demonstrate by highlighting the examples of farming and fishing.
The farming sector is a critical source of both employment and food supply in the Strip. For years, farmers in Gaza have sought to coordinate the entry of fertilizers and agricultural disinfectants that could increase their yield by as much as 25 percent, improve the quality of crops, extend their shelf life, and boost profitability… Israel continues to deny Gaza access to these essential materials.
The fishing sector, another major source of livelihoods and supplier of food for Gaza’s residents, has suffered for years under limitations Israel enforces in Gaza’s sea space, as well as restrictions it imposes on the entry of “dual-use” equipment and materials needed for repair and maintenance of fishing boats, which have left many boats out of commission.
All of this, of course, has significant implications for Israel and, by extension, its allies and friends around the world. These are threefold: morally, legally and practically.
First, in terms of morality, Israel and Egypt’s blockade of the Strip are potential accelerants for a worst-case Gazan epidemic, that will likely kill the most vulnerable within the society. Second, legally, as Israel remains the occupying power and therefore de jure responsible for the wellbeing of all Palestinians in the oPts (even if it would like to claim otherwise). Third, practical – this is to say even in terms of a narrowly defined view of Israeli national interest – because an uncontrolled Gazan epidemic would not respect the boundaries of the Strip, regardless of how much they are re-enforced militarily.
Thus, beyond this deluge of troubling and frustrating information about the prospects of an even bleaker short term future for the already battered and abused Gazan population, this crisis highlights a broader lesson that the international community (such as it is in the age of Trump) refuses to learn. For more than a decade, various independent figures have warned of an impending humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip if conditions remained unchanged. Yet Israel (and Egypt) -with the world’s tacit complicity, doubled down.
It is unlikely, of course, that many would have predicted the precise nature of this particular crisis – but what did they think would happen? If the endgame for the siege of Gaza wasn’t going to be COVID-19, then what did Israeli or international policymakers expect it to be? Perhaps the imagined that by keeping the Strip locked down for 13 years, deprived of resources and its population denied rights years that somehow this would lead to a future of endless sunshine, rainbows and unicorns?
Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General, said recently that “the fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war”. ‘Folly’ is hardly a strong enough word to describe the unrelenting and inhumane siege of Gaza, but the main thrust of his point stands. COVID-19 doesn’t give a damn about Israelis or Palestinians – it doesn’t care about the history Israel or Palestine or the various narratives that ‘explain’ the current, ludicrous situation.
Ironically through its indifference toward our very human distinctions around identity, the virus might make us take more care of each other’s common humanity. If we don’t, then it will surely ravage our societies – in Palestine, Israel and beyond – even further.