COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip: A Disaster in the Making

With 754 new coronavirus infections reported in the Gaza strip on this Friday, the highest single-day total as of yet, COVID-19 appears to be taking a hold on the densely inhabited region (and testing is sparse in Gaza so the real figure will likely be far higher). Until now, Gaza was relatively spared from the successive waves of infections. The situation, however, may end up setting off a ticking time bomb in Gaza as the atrocious living conditions of many Gazans are ideal for disease spread with disastrous swiftness.

In this poignant video all statistics quoted are well sourced and verified. The Palestine Trauma Centre funds and runs much needed psychosocial support and therapeutic projects in the Gaza Strip. If you wish to support the work they do in Gaza, you can do so through their JustGiving appeal page, and their friends invite you to attend their online Yoga meditation on Saturday the 28th of November from 10:00 – 11:45 am GMT, detailed on their JustGiving page.

Indeed, in Gaza there are only 87 ICU beds with ventilators for 2 million people, and many are already occupied – with a capacity to admit and treat 3,234 COVID-19 cases faced with a total of 4,374 active cases (as of the 20th of November), an increasing number of severe cases, and a dearth of personal protective equipment (PPE), this capacity will rapidly be strained. In fact, the head of the European Gaza Hospital, Yousuf Alaqqad, said on Saturday that the hospital could announce at any time its inability to receive new cases, as the hospital and adjacent school used as a quarantine centre are now full. Moreover, electricity shortages and expensive fuel costs for generators are forcing doctors to choose to allocate electricity to patients most in need, such as choosing between running ventilators or lighting up surgery rooms. The difficult issue of triage is one that many Gazan healthcare professionals are now having to face.

The pandemic is only compounding an already dire public health crisis, with the 13-year blockade having made many treatments in Gaza unavailable, providing a difficult choice for the 9000 vulnerable patients each year that need Israel’s exit permits to leave Gaza for treatment, as they risk being infected with COVID-19 when they leave, or risk life-threatening conditions if they remain untreated. If they do leave Gaza for treatment, the mandatory isolation centres upon their return are often underequipped, providing additional risks of infection. The dense living situation in Gaza is also complicating self-quarantine and social distancing conditions, as well as the lack of PPE (only 42% of those that need it can afford or have access to PPE). Economic precarity and the lack of savings after years of hardship for many Gazans also makes isolation impossible.

Self-isolation or not, two successive lockdowns have had their toll on the already precarious economic conditions of many Palestinians. Workers in Gaza have seen their income fall by almost 90% since the start of the pandemic, and tens of thousands have lost their employment. Indeed, poverty rates have been predicted to rise by at least 10% by the World Bank because of the pandemic and almost 60% of Gazans are unable to afford basic food, medicine and supplies, especially as international aid to Gaza has been severely cut in recent years.

Children have also acutely suffered the effects of the lockdown; school closures and the introduction of remote learning has been a challenge for many families when faced with regular power cuts, patchy internet, and a lack of educational resources. Moreover, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) funding that runs the majority of schools, health services and humanitarian aid to Palestinians with refugee status is running dry – it now faces a $70 million funding shortfall and will be unable to pay its staff full salaries in November and December. Aside from the economic impact on many staffers (UNRWA is the main employer in Gaza after the local authorities) and the impact on Palestinian refugees, 80-90% of whom rely on the UNRWA for assistance, many children will see further disruptions in their learning. On top of this, 86% of Palestinian children and adolescents already suffer from symptoms of PTSD as a consequence of the ongoing conflict.

This impact is not only limited to children – the conflict and insecurity has led to 82% of Gazans manifesting signs of mental health issues, such as anxiety and stress as they worry about their inability to support and feed their families. However, 65% are unaware of how to access mental health and psychosocial support services. As economic insecurity and the pandemic worsens with winter’s approach, more Gazans will have to make the impossible choice between feeding their families or buying medicine for sick relatives, especially following the escalation of violence since August, and a tightened blockade by Israel.

Real Security Depends on a Political Solution

This comes in from Brian Reeves of Peace Now who shares their phone number +972-54-7095882. The NCF has been promoting a plan for the phased introduction of the Beirut Initiative. But that the status quo is a waste of lives, of time, of resources, and utterly pointless is most certainly true whatever your perspective.

For years, the policy of successive Netanyahu governments has been to weaken the Palestinian Authority and to sustain Hamas through a tit-for-tat, “shoot and be shot at, don’t shoot and don’t get shot at” conflict management strategy, and the result is the present situation we find ourselves in.

1. The violence that flares up around Gaza every few months represents the failure of the Israeli government’s policy in dealing with the Hamas terror organization. The victims of this policy are hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens and almost two million Palestinians, held hostage by a political leadership refusing to seek a political solution.

2. At the end of each round of violence Netanyahu refuses to take advantage of the temporary cessation of hostilities to press for a comprehensive political settlement. Nor does he attempt to improve the humanitarian situation of millions of Palestinians under a blockade—despite recommendations from the security echelon—while his government transfers tens of millions of dollars to Hamas.

3. It is in Netanyahu’s interest to maintain the strength of Hamas and to deepen the division between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. His government does this by strengthening the power of extremists in Gaza and sidelining the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, which remains committed to a two-state solution and to security cooperation with Israel.

The Disengagement Excuse

To deflect from the decade-long failure of Netanyahu’s leadership on the Gaza front, his apologists hearken back to the 2005 Disengagement to blame the peace camp. This line of reasoning lazily assumes nothing could have been done to change the trajectory in the intervening 14 years. It also misrepresents history:

4. The Disengagement Plan was conceived and implemented by the Likud under the leadership of Ariel Sharon. Netanyahu voted in favor of this plan on four separate occasions.

5. The left demanded an agreement with the Palestinians, like the framework of the agreements made in the past with Egypt and Jordan, and despite general support for redeployment warned against unilateral initiatives. With no coordinated handoff to the PA to strengthen it in the eyes of Palestinians, Hamas had free reign to spread its own narrative that Israel “retreated” due to its terror operations.

6. In the five years before the Disengagement, Israeli settlements in Gaza were sitting-duck targets, resulting in 162 Israelis killed (soldiers and civilians). The death rate has dropped to a third of what it was since the Disengagement. Additionally, the firing of rockets began years before the Disengagement.

Israeli citizens deserve a courageous government that will deliver a conflict-ending agreement: a two-state solution with the Palestinian Authority, based on security for Israeli citizens. This is the only solution supported by the overwhelming majority of Israel’s past and current security leaders.

Security depends on a political solution. Short of that, the insecurity around Gaza will surely return.

The Great March of Return: where are the terrorists – The NCF Gaza reports

Palestinians are protesting against restrictions on what goes in and out of Gaza. They are also supporting ‘right to return’ calls from Palestinian refugees. The moving of the USA’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has exaserbated the situation. On Monday 14th May 40,000 Gazans joined the border protest. At least 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed thus far and thousands injured. Israel claims that protestors are terrorists attempting to break through the barrier. However several hundred metres separate protestors from IDF personnel. Most of the protestors were not violent and avoided getting too close to the ‘border’. Protestors included families with children. Gazans struggle to deal with increasing difficulties. Residents only have around four hours of electricity a day, there is limited access to clean water, limited health services and unemployment in the region is at around 64%. 

The response from the NCF in Gaza

The devastating reality of the situation has been reinforced by the Next Century Foundation’s office in the International Press Centre in Gaza. We were able to speak to them following the events of Monday 14th which they described as a “bloody, bloody day” and the worst so far. Award winning Gazan journalist Adel Zanoun told us that 3,288 people had been injured with a range of severity levels, including journalists. When asked about our journalist friends in Gaza, he said that they are all under threat regardless of whether they are national or international. The targeting of the press indicates that Israel’s claims that they are merely protecting themselves and responding to threats are not credible. Journalists are clearly marked with the word ‘PRESS’ across their chests. If Israel were combatting ‘terrorists’ then why have so many journalists, an estimated 175, been injured with several dead?

Regarding the use of force by Israel, Zanoun said that people were being injured by live fire against the Palestinian demonstrators that had steadily increased over the weeks; he said it was live ammunition that was injuring these people and not rubber bullets. Critical of Israel, he repeatedly tells me of how “bloody” it has been and the intense pressure that the Palestinians in Gaza are under. He makes reference to Hamas, stating that they have definitely played a role in the organisation of the demonstrations and that they may, following on from the intensity of Israel’s response, establish a counter response of their own. He also said that neither Ramadan nor the violence will deter demonstrations from continuing. However, he does not believe that the protests mask terrorism and emphasises that these were Palestinian people objecting to mistreatment.

Citing a widespread “collapse” of infrastructure, he emphasised the severity of the humanitarian situation, Public sector workers have been impacted with their salaries being cut; he says this has led to hospitals opening intermittently and no authorities in place to protect or serve the people in Gaza. There is no knowledge as to when full salaries will be reinstated. Zanoun repeatedly said that the Palestinian people are truly under such pressure that is only likely to worsen. With hospitals closing and virtually no ability to move in and out of the region, and no option for people to return if they do leave, the injured were not adequately cared for*. He says that there had been a breakdown of reconciliation between Hamas and Palestinian authorities in Ramallah thus contributing to the absence of humanitarian or political progress.

The Palestinian people in Gaza are suffering, as they have been for many years. The firing of live ammunition against thousands of mostly innocent and unarmed protestors has furthered the suffering. When I asked Zanoun what he thinks about the future and the next steps, he said “there is no hope for Gaza now”. There is uncertainty, he says, that means that “no one knows what will happen” in one hour, one day or one month. What he does know is that the pressure continues to mount against the people and that political and humanitarian solutions are needed immediately to address the declining situation in Gaza. He said that people and politicians need to be working towards helping those in Gaza.

*N.B. Since speaking to Zanoun, Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza strip throughout the month of Ramadan. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted that this would help “alleviate the burden of the brothers in the Gaza strip”

The background to the response

Since the end of March, 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s forces and thousands have been injured as they protest by the ‘border’. The response from the international community was weak to begin with, little attention was paid in the earlier days of these protests. However, since the 14th, Gaza is very much top of the international agenda with varied responses to the atrocities committed.

Israel’s representatives have denied acting wrongfully. They believe that Hamas was the driver of these protests and that the intention was to target Israel, target the borders and do so under the guise of a demonstration. Therefore, they have said their intention was to simply protect their borders and target ‘terrorists’ who were supposedly conducting a terrorist operation. It is undeniable that Hamas have been involved in the organising of these protests, something Zanoun said freely. However, to justify opening live fire on civilians because they are ‘terrorists’ is unacceptable. Not all of those who have died were terrorists, the members of the press who have been wounded, for example, were not terrorists.

In the immediate aftermath, the United States aligned themselves with Israel and did not, unlike their French and British counterparts, condemn the actions of the IDF. They believe their actions were justified. Nikki Haley spoke at the United Nations the following day where Israel was praised for showing “restraint” and blamed Hamas for the death of Palestinians and the violence, stating that it was what they wanted. The USA believed that ultimately, Israel acted in the best interests of its national security. Their stance is perhaps unsurprising given the choice to move the embassy on Nakba Day, a strong display of alliance with Israel and their lack of support for a future peace process.

Britain and France have expressed their disapproval of the actions of Israel and the wish to go forward in peace. Prime Minister Theresa May said that this level of violence is ‘destructive to peace efforts’ and that both sides should be acting with ‘restraint’. Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, stood up and passionately condemned the ‘massacre’ committed by Israel against protestors.  French President Emmanuel Macron was openly disapproving of the violence exercised by Israel’s forces and expressed empathy and compassion for the Palestinian people in Gaza.

As aforementioned, Egypt’s opening of the border crossing with the Gaza strip is emblematic of the attention and compassion that is now being shown to the Palestinians in Gaza by the international community. The United Nations has expressed its concern for the events that have happened since March in Gaza. Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the current High Commissioner for Human Rights, has emphatically highlighted the plight of those in Gaza and their suffering. He also raises the point that there have been no casualties on Israel’s side thus demonstrating the asymmetry in any violent exchanges. Israel, according to al-Hussein, has acted without constraint and excessively. On Friday 18th May the UN Human Rights Council held a special session resolving to call an urgent independent enquiry into Monday’s events. The UK was amongst the 14 countries who abstained, citing the need for Israel to carry out their own independent investigation; the USA and Israel rejected the resolution. The latter once again cited the events in Gaza as a response to Hamas’ terrorist activities.

In Gaza itself, demonstrations continue unabated. The numbers are less and people are more cautious yet there is still drive there. It was quieter though as people across the region, including Israel, said their prayers for the people of Gaza and the ones who have been lost.

The international community has taken notice of Gaza and the suffering and unfairness that its people are subjected to. Israel may affirm the idea that their use of force was a way of responding to a perceived terrorist threat, but these arguments have little credibility. Of course there were agitators and violent protestors present, but children, impartial observers and thousands who posed no threat to the IDF have been injured, some killed. The treatment of Palestinians and their human rights has long been a cause for concern. With several nation states now openly criticising recent events and condemning the use of force against civilians, it leads to hope that there may be, as Adel Zanoun wished, humanitarian and political change for the people of Gaza.