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Israel risks major outbreak by failing to aid millions of Palestinians

Apr 07,2020 - Last updated at Apr 07,2020

The besieged Gaza Strip is a coronavirus ticking bomb that could explode at any moment. Health authorities there had ordered a lockdown two weeks ago after two Covid-19 cases were discovered on 22 March. Since then more than 1,500 people have been placed in quarantine, and more than 2 million residents are ordered to stay at home. Social distancing in one of the most overcrowded places on earth is a sick joke. The strip has been under economic blockade by Israel for more than 13 years. The last military onslaught on Gaza was in 2014; turning hundreds of residential buildings into rubble. It is estimated that every individual has an average of 0.18 square meters of personal space. The threat of contracting and transmitting the virus is higher than any other region.

Back in 2012, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees warned that the Gaza Strip would be uninhabitable by 2020. UNRWA itself is struggling financially since the US suspended its aid two years ago, making its crucial role in Gaza even more difficult. More than 50 percent of the population is unemployed, it is more than 75 per cent among youth, and are dependent on food handouts. There is virtually no economy, no clean water, intermittent power supply and acute shortage of medicine and ventilators; the health system has been overwhelmed for years. The UN estimates that to keep hospitals running an urgent infusion of $35 million is needed. More than a thousand testing kits have been delivered but that is a drop in an ocean.

By all estimates, Gaza is unprepared for a virus outbreak; it does not have enough hospital beds, ICU units or needed ventilators. The possibility of an outbreak is particularly high in light of over crowdedness and poor sanitary infrastructure. Aside from the danger of a Covid-19 outbreak, hospitals have to deal with other diseases like diabetes, hypertension, renal failure and respiratory illness among others.

But Gaza is not even on the radar of the international community. It is completely dependent on Israel for the flow of essential goods and medicines. And Israel is slowly waking up to the reality that an outbreak in Gaza will almost certainly threaten its national security. But a right-wing government in Israel is taking its time to respond. Recently, it opened the border to facilitate the entry of testing kits and medicines. But that is not enough.

For now Israel’s intelligence agencies are looking at the situation in Gaza and the West Bank from a security point of view. The army is laying out scenarios to lockdown entire Palestinian villages in case of an outbreak while preparing response strategies to an eruption of popular protests in Gaza that could breach the separation fence. Also the Israeli government is said to be bargaining with Hamas to release two soldiers, believed to be in Gaza since 2014, in return for the relaxation of the embargo.

This is not the time to play politics when a pandemic is on the loose and is threatening to bring down the entire world order. Israel cannot use the wellbeing of millions of Palestinians as a bargaining chip when its own health system is overburdened as it confronts a seedy spread of Covid-19 within its own borders.

Israel’s own coronavirus challenge is humongous with more than 8,000 confirmed cases, with over 40 deaths, and models pointing to tens of thousands of potential infections. Health experts believe that most of cases in the Palestinian territories can be traced to Palestinian laborers working inside the Green Line and in Jewish settlements. As the number of cases inside Palestinian territories crossed the 250 barrier, forcing the government to impose a strict curfew, Israel had no choice but release millions of dollars in tax money to the PA to enable it to contain and mitigate the pandemic.

Last month, eight Democratic senators called on the Trump administration to ensure that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank receive any necessary aid to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Their call was unheeded.

But Israel’s responsibility towards the Palestinians goes beyond lifting the blockade and aiding the PA. So far it had ignored Palestinian request to release prisoners, numbering more than 5,000, including at least 250 minors and 50 women, to protect them from contracting the virus. At least two Palestinian prisoners who were released recently tested positive for the Covid-19. Israel has also rejected a request to have an independent medical committee visit prisoners in Israeli detention centers.

Israel is failing to see that the current pandemic has changed the geopolitical realities, and, therefore, it cannot but bear its responsibility as an occupying power towards millions of Palestinians. The virus knows no boundaries and an outbreak in underprepared Gaza and the West Bank will have catastrophic outcome not only on the Palestinians but on Israel as well. On the other hand, the Palestinians themselves will be defenseless if Israel becomes a virus hotspot, as many now are predicting.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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