Israel makes COVID much worse for Palestinians

A coronavirus patient is treated at al-Aqsa hospital in Deir al-Balah, central Gaza Strip, on 6 December.

Ashraf Amra APA images

On Sunday, the health ministry in Gaza announced that it had halted testing for COVID-19 after running out of supplies.

Additional testing kits were delivered by the World Health Organization the next day, staving off a full-blown emergency – for the time being.

The interruption in testing came as one-third of COVID-19 test results in Gaza were coming back positive – a very high rate that likely indicates that not enough testing is being done in the first place.

Of those confirmed cases, 20 percent were serious or critical. More than 150 people in Gaza have died from the coronavirus so far.

Fears become reality

From the beginning, there were well-founded fears that the pandemic would do disproportionate harm in Gaza.

With community transmission now seemingly out of control, those fears may soon become reality.

The “unlivable” Gaza Strip is home to some two million people – more than 40 percent of them aged 14 years old or younger, two-thirds of them refugees – confined to its 139 square miles. It is one of the most densely populated places in the world.

It also has one of the highest unemployment rates on the planet and more than half of its residents live in poverty.

Like every other sector in Gaza, the healthcare system has deteriorated after more than 13 years of siege and repeated brutal Israeli military offensives. Gaza’s medical centers were still reeling from an epidemic of catastrophic injuries caused by Israel’s use of live fire against civilian protesters when the pandemic hit.

Shortages of essential medical supplies – to say nothing of electricity and fuel to operate generators during power outages – are nothing new in Gaza.

At the end of November, the health ministry in the territory reported that it had less than a one-month supply of nearly half of all essential medicines. It also had critical shortages of medical disposables.

“Permanent emergency”

For years, Gaza’s medical system has been on the brink of collapse. This is part of the “permanent emergency” borne by Israel’s regime of occupation, colonization and apartheid, as the human rights group Al-Haq states in a new position paper on COVID-19 and Palestinians’ right to health.

“COVID-19 poses a disproportionate and substantial threat to a Palestinian society deliberately denied for decades the right to develop a functioning healthcare system,” according to Al-Haq.

This is a direct result of “apartheid policies and practices imposed by Israel’s prolonged occupation,” the Palestinian group adds.

Palestinians have been fragmented into “distinct legal, political and geographic domains,” Al-Haq explains.

These distinct domains include Palestinians living under discriminatory Israeli civil law within Israel; those with permanent residency status in occupied and illegally annexed East Jerusalem; Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip; and Palestinian refugees and exiles in the diaspora who are denied by Israel their right to return.

Gaza, under a severe economic blockade and exacerbated Israeli closures since 2007, has been cut off from the West Bank, which has been divided up into enclaves with differing degrees of limited Palestinian self-rule.

This fragmentation is a key strategy of Israel’s apartheid regime, a 2017 study by the UN Economic and Social Commission found.

“This geographic division creates a complex system of dependency upon Israel,” Al-Haq states, “and its overarching military and security apparatus, which controls all movement of people and goods, as well as access to healthcare for Palestinians.”

Political and historic forces

Israel’s prolonged occupation, colonization and apartheid have deprived Palestinians of their means of subsistence, according to Al-Haq.

Humanitarian aid, like the COVID testing kits provided by WHO, addresses gaps in basic services. But it does not remedy the persistent and pervasive violation of Palestinians’ basic rights.

Beyond Israeli movement restrictions, the ongoing denial of Palestinian self-determination “remains a major impediment to the full and progressive realization of Palestinians’ economic, social and cultural rights, including to health,” Al-Haq states.

Palestinians are denied access to clean water and adequate sanitation while political prisoners held by Israel face “overcrowded and unsanitary detention conditions,” the rights group adds.

“The political and historic forces to which Palestinians have been subjected compound their susceptibility to COVID-19,” according to Al-Haq.

Israel, as the occupying power, is legally – not just morally – obliged to provide essential supplies to the civilians living under its rule.

International inaction

Like so many of its obligations, Israel flouts its legal duties as third states look on and do almost nothing.

“As COVID-19 compounds Palestinian oppression, international justice and accountability are needed now more than ever to bring an end to Israeli impunity,” Al-Haq states.

The group is calling for “a full, thorough and comprehensive investigation by the International Criminal Court” and for the implementation of recommendations of prior UN inquiries into Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights.

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, the heads of the European Union’s diplomatic missions in Ramallah and Jerusalem visited Gaza for the first time since 2016.

This remarkably long absence belies their claim that “Gaza remains a priority for the EU and its member states.”

Though it acknowledges the dire “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza, the EU’s statement on the visit barely mentions Israel’s responsibility for the situation and makes no mention at all of its obligations as the occupying power.

Instead, EU Representative Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff issued a generic call that “all duty bearers should act now and respect their obligations under international law.”

The EU boasts of its humanitarian funding for Gaza’s “suffering” population.

But it is precisely because of the EU’s stubborn unwillingness to hold Israel directly accountable that the Palestinian doctors who briefed its diplomats on Tuesday face such “unprecedented challenges.”


Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.