UN officials are gently nudging Israel to do more for Palestinians as they attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus.
Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s Middle East peace envoy, said that Israel and the international community should help the Palestinian Authority in the wake of “the grave economic consequences” of COVID-19.
This treatment of Israel as a benefactor – rather than as an occupier with specific obligations under international humanitarian law – is yet another example of how the UN normalizes and facilitates a fundamentally unjust situation.
It obscures Israel’s direct role in the de-development of the Palestinian economy in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as though it is a passive bystander to what happens in those territories.
Israel is praised despite all it has done to harm the capacity of the Palestinian health sector, whether it be by attacking paramedics, bombing and storming hospitals, depriving hospitals of fuel and preventing the import of medicines and equipment, or generally impoverishing the population of Gaza and making the territory an unlivable place.
As the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem stated on Tuesday, “the dire state of the Palestinian healthcare system is a direct outcome of decades of Israeli occupation.”
Israel, as the occupying power, is directly responsible for the health of Palestinians living under its rule.
“This responsibility includes responding to emergency needs, providing essential medical care and equipment, and implementing protective measures to prevent contamination,” B’Tselem adds.
While its military boasts of its efforts to deliver food to elderly Israeli settlers who are isolating at home, Israel actively undermines Palestinian capacity to respond to the pandemic.
A primary hindrance is Israel’s siege on Gaza, now in its 13th year. On Tuesday, 19 human rights groups called on Israel to immediately lift the blockade so that “Gaza can equip itself with the necessary medical supplies.”
In contrast to UN officials who call on Israel to “help” the Palestinian Authority, these same rights groups make it clear that Israel must loosen its chokehold on the Palestinian economy.
“Israel should remove barriers to movement of goods and any other impediments on trade and economic activity that harm public health,” the groups state.
Israel should also “actively maintain a steady supply of electricity and fuel so that hospitals and the general population can maintain reasonable levels of hygiene,” they add.
It is not enough to appeal to Israeli magnanimity when international law makes clear its responsibilities to the Palestinians who live under its military rule.
As the human rights groups state, “Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically provides that an occupier has the duty of ensuring and maintaining the ‘adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.’”
If the coronavirus spreads further in the West Bank, where there have already been 247 confirmed cases, causing one death, and spreads beyond the 13 cases under quarantine in Gaza, Israel will bear direct responsibility.
There are well-founded fears that any community spread of the coronavirus in Gaza would prove a catastrophe for its healthcare system.
The relatively low number of cases in Gaza and the West Bank may reflect the lack of available testing.
As of Monday, only about 1,500 people had been tested among Gaza’s population of two million.
The number of actual cases may spike as Palestinians who work as laborers in Israel return to the West Bank during Passover, which begins on Wednesday evening.
As of Tuesday, Israel had reported more than 9,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 65 deaths.
“In addition to its own citizens and residents, Israel must also fulfill its duty to all protected persons living under its effective control, including in Gaza, and take active steps to ensure that they have adequate access to medical care,” the rights groups state.
Israel is failing to fulfill its responsibilities toward Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, occupied territory illegally annexed by Israel.
Moshe Leon, Israel’s mayor of Jerusalem, has accused Israel’s health ministry of neglecting Palestinian hospitals in the eastern sector of the city, bringing them to the brink of collapse.
“I would like to warn you regarding the serious shortage of medical equipment at the hospitals in East Jerusalem, particularly protective equipment and equipment to conduct coronavirus testing. This is despite repeated promises on the part of your [ministry],” Leon stated in a letter to the ministry.
Palestinian officials arrested
Not only is Israel not adequately equipping Jerusalem hospitals serving Palestinian residents, but its police are arresting Palestinian Authority officials for coordinating coronavirus response efforts in the city.
Fadi al-Hidmi, the Palestinian Authority’s Jerusalem affairs minister, was arrested during a violent raid on his East Jerusalem home before dawn last Friday. He was questioned and released without charge.
Micky Rosenfeld, the Israeli police spokesperson, said al-Hidmi was arrested “on suspicions of Palestinian activities in Jerusalem.”
Al-Hidmi filed a complaint this week alleging that he was beaten by officers who “forced him to wear a dirty and bloody mask,” Haaretz reported.
Israel has criminalized any Palestinian Authority presence in Jerusalem and has repeatedly arrested al-Hidmi since he took up his post last year.
Adnan Ghaith, the Palestinian Authority’s governor of Jerusalem, was arrested on Monday. He too has been arrested several times over the past year.
Rosenfeld gave the same justification for Ghaith’s arrest as it did al-Hidmi.
A judge rejected a police request to extend Ghaith’s arrest on Monday.
“The judge ruled that Ghaith’s activity complies with health ministry guidelines and was also intended to disseminate information among residents which does not violate the law,” according to Haaretz.
Meanwhile, Adalah, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, is demanding that Israel “provide coronavirus testing for residents of Palestinian towns in [the] Upper Galilee.”
Adalah is also calling on Israel to make public “essential coronavirus data for towns with less than 5,000 residents.”
As B’Tselem states, “Israel is responsible for the health of all 14 million people who live under its control between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”
No one should be surprised that Israel has not lived up to that responsibility. Disparities in health between Israelis and Palestinians, including a 10-year gap in life expectancy, are nothing new. And they are the direct result of the Israeli occupation and other abuses.
Israel has been happy to transfer much of its obligations to the Palestinians living under its military occupation onto the shoulders of international actors like the United Nations, whose representatives now meekly appeal to the occupier to do more.
It is time for those officials to hold Israel accountable to the international law that they should be upholding, rather than heaping it with praise on the rare occasions it is not actively violating Palestinians’ right to health.