Palestinians face two enemies: occupation and pandemic

Children wearing face masks look out of vehicle window

Palestinian children wear protective face masks in Gaza City on 22 March. There are nine confirmed cases of people with the novel coronavirus in the territory, all under quarantine. 

Mohammed Zaanoun ActiveStills

Despite the global pandemic, it’s business as usual for the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the new coronavirus, has risen to almost 2,700 in Israel, approximately 80 in the occupied West Bank and nine in the besieged Gaza Strip.

The illness has claimed the lives of eight Israelis so far, and one Palestinian woman in the occupied West Bank.

While the coronavirus sickens more people, Palestinians simultaneously face an older enemy: Israeli military occupation.

Besieged and densely populated Gaza is in particular danger from a widespread epidemic.

“Israel will not be able to deflect the blame if this nightmare scenario turns into a reality that it created and made no effort to prevent,” the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem warned this week.

Physical distancing, staying home and maintaining hygiene are precautions Palestinians struggle to take as Israel continues to demolish structures, conduct night raids, arbitrarily arrest children and routinely harass civilians.

Seizing structures for field clinic

Early Thursday, Israeli forces demolished and seized structures meant for a field clinic and emergency housing in Ibziq, a village in the northern Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank.

This was done under the supervision of the Civil Administration, the bureaucratic arm of Israel’s military occupation.

Israeli forces confiscated tents, a generator and building supplies.

“Shutting down a first-aid community initiative during a health crisis is an especially cruel example of the regular abuse inflicted on these communities,” Israeli human rights group B’Tselem stated.

According to village council chief Abdul Majid Khdeirat, this was done on the pretext that the construction was in a closed military zone.

Israel habitually declares occupied West Bank land to be firing or military zones then later seizes the land for illegal Israeli settlements.

Israeli forces also demolished the homes of three Palestinian families in al-Duyuk village near Jericho.

An Israeli military bulldozer destroyed the homes of Muayad Abu Obaida, Thaer al-Sharif and Yasir Alayan, because they were built without permits which Israel almost never grants to Palestinians. This leaves them no choice but to build homes without the occupier’s permission.

All three farmers are residents of Jerusalem.

Pictures and videos of the demolition circulated in local media:

Isolating tens of thousands

Meanwhile, Israel is considering sealing off several neighborhoods of occupied East Jerusalem, isolating tens of thousands of Palestinians from the rest of the city.

Almost 70 percent of the 100,000 people in Shuafat refugee camp have Israeli residency cards allowing them to enter Jerusalem.

“In the event of a closure, these residents will be entirely disconnected from their city upon which they rely for all basic services, and it will likely lead to widespread panic and unrest,” warns Ir Amim, an Israeli group working towards equality in Jerusalem.

“Such a measure would be one step further in realizing longstanding Israeli plans to redraw Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to formally disconnect these neighborhoods from Jerusalem.”

Israel would be using coronavirus as a pretext to cut off those neighborhoods from the rest of Jerusalem, despite the number of confirmed cases being dramatically lower in those neighborhoods compared to Israel.

“Most vulnerable people in the world”

Humans rights groups are warning of an impending massive disaster in case of a widespread COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza.

Often referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison, the coastal enclave has been under a tight Israeli siege since 2007. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and sea, and Israel along with Egypt controls its land boundaries.

Gaza is still reeling from three major Israeli military offensives since 2008.

“Gazans [are] amongst the most vulnerable people in the world to the global COVID-19 pandemic,” the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq stated.

The water and sanitation crisis caused by Israel’s prolonged blockade of Gaza undermines “the ability of Palestinians to adequately prevent and mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak,” al-Haq added.

Less than four percent of water in the territory is fit for human consumption.

Modern healthcare systems in countries like Italy and Spain are collapsing under the pressure of the pandemic.

An outbreak of the new coronavirus in Gaza, where the health infrastructure is already on the brink of collapse, would throw it into “a humanitarian disaster – created entirely by Israel,” B’Tselem stated.

Israel habitually delays or denies permits for many Palestinians to receive treatment outside Gaza, granting permission to only a fraction who need medical care.

“Now, even this faint possibility will not exist,” B’Tselem said.

Dr. Mona El-Farra, the health chair of the Palestine Red Crescent Society in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada that there’s a shortage of beds, protective equipment and testing kits.

“We don’t have enough kits, we have up to this minute just around 200 kits for diagnosis. At the moment we have 2,500 people in quarantine. They all need to be tested.”

Qatar pledged $150 million over the next six months to aid United Nations efforts against the coronavirus in Gaza.

While this aid may help in the near term, it also relieves Israel of its responsibility as the occupying power.

No access to emergency services

Adalah, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, says Palestinian Bedouins in the southern Naqab region have no access to emergency medical services.

Israel’s health ministry bars those with fever and respiratory symptoms from leaving their homes. If their health deteriorates, MDA, the national ambulance service, may recommend an in-home examination or evacuation to the hospital.

Those villages have no access to the MDA, however.

The group sent a letter to Israeli authorities on Sunday demanding they provide those services to 70,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel living in unrecognized villages.

“Israel has for years maintained a policy of neglect and discrimination when it came to providing routine health services – as well as emergency medical services – to Bedouin citizens of Israel,” Adalah said.

“In light of the coronavirus crisis, this state policy has now resulted in an immediate danger to local residents and the general public alike.”

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There is a disconnect from reality in the Israeli actions. Unsurprising, given the long distortion of reality in the Zionist mentality: Palestine was an empty land when the settlers arrived; the Palestinians left voluntarily; Zionism is anti-Semitism; military destruction proves that what was destroyed was without validity; the Arabs attacked Israel in 1967; Israel is a democracy surrounded by Arab tyrannies; all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitism...At the heart of this is the delusion of Zionist superiority. It's important to make a distinction here: people have an absolute right to freedom of belief. There is no law which forbids white people from believing they are superior to black people. It's a demented belief but there's no law against it. What the law says is you aren't permitted to act on it. Thus, if Zionists want to believe themselves superior, though it's demented, they have the right to do so. No one is suggesting thought control when Zionist actions are criticised. But to move from the belief to imposing it on others by oppressing them as inferior, that is what is intolerable. The attack is not on freedom of belief, thus not on Judaism or even Zionism as a belief system, but on the actions which flow from a belief in superiority. Hence, the claim that criticism of those actions is anti-Semitic has no validity. Nor is criticism of the beliefs anti-Semitic so long as it grants freedom of belief. Freedom does not mean absence of criticism. The arrogance of the Israeli regime will be its downfall one way or another. The Covid crisis may hasten that downfall if the Israelis don't grasp reality and ensure the people of Gaza are tested, isolated and treated. That means recognising them as equals. Anathema to Zionist racists, but reality is what it is as the whites of Rhodesia and South Africa discovered.

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Under International Law, especially the Geneva Conventions, to which Israel is a signatory, is it not the legal obligation of an occupying power to provide for the
health and safety of the occupied human beings?

Quoting: "Israel’s restrictions on access to and from Gaza go far beyond what is permitted by international humanitarian law and human rights law. Because Israel continues to exercise control over significant aspects of life in Gaza, it continues to have obligations under the law of occupation in the areas in which it continues to exercise control – primarily to allow the movement of people and goods. While the law of occupation allows Israel to restrict travel for imperative reasons of security, the generalized travel ban it imposes is vastly disproportionate to any concrete security threat. Israel is also required, under the law of occupation as codified in Article 43 of the Hague Regulations,[2] to permit the proper functioning of civil society, including human rights organizations and activity. The ban also runs afoul of Israel’s obligations to respect the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, including their right to freedom of movement, which includes, with some limitations, a right to enter and leave one’s country and to choose one’s place of residence within it.

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Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.