A member of staff of the World Health Organisation tours a quarantine facility set up at the Rafah border crossing (photo: Reuters)
Monday, 30 March, marked the second anniversary of the Great March of Return where thousands of Palestinians in Gaza took to the border with Israel every Friday in 2018 till the end of 2019.
It is also Palestine Land Day — an important commemorative event that dates to 1967 when Israeli police killed six Palestinian citizens of Israel as they were protesting the Israeli government’s expropriation of large swaths of Palestinian land. Palestinians, especially in the West Bank, have marked the anniversary since that day.
In 2018, Gaza erupted in mass marches at the border with Israel on Land Day, demanding to return to their ancestor’s homes and lands in the West Bank and what became Israel which they were forced to leave by Zionist gangs and Israeli occupation forces in 1948 and 1967. The marches were also an attempt to draw attention to Israeli’s cruel siege of Gaza since 2007, which has practically transformed the coastal enclave into the world’s largest open-air prison.
The peaceful marches were met with Israeli bullets, killing 256 Palestinians and injuring or maiming 29,000. They were suspended in December 2019 for three months.
But scheduled marches this Monday were cancelled by local authorities as they grapple with the coronavirus pandemic which, for now, poses a bigger threat to Gaza’s besieged population of two million people than Israel does.
In less than a week the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Gaza rose from only two to nine. In the West Bank, 115 Palestinians have tested positive. One woman in her 60s died of the virus.
On Saturday, the Palestinian Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip launched an appeal to the international community for $23 million to assist in efforts to contain the spread of the virus. The appeal comes five days after Qatar announced $150 million in aid to Gaza over a period of six months to support UN humanitarian programmes there.
Gaza’s infrastructure is shattered after 13 years of the Israeli siege and several wars. A pandemic would have a devastating impact on the densely populated, poorly equipped enclave were the movement of every single thing — from foods, building materials to medical equipment, and human beings across the borders with Israel and Egypt — is controlled by the Israeli occupation.
“The Health Ministry is deeply concerned over the severe shortages of essential medicines, medical consumables, laboratory supplies and blood banks, in addition to the limited equipment used to carry out coronavirus examinations,” Ashraf Qudra, spokesman for the Health Ministry, told a news conference last week.
Qudra accused the Israeli occupation state of systematically undermining health and humanitarian services in Gaza over long years of siege, holding it fully responsible for the lives of the population.
The first two cases of coronavirus in Gaza were diagnosed on 21 March, rising to nine in one week. Twenty-five designated quarantine centres — hosting 1,760 people — are located in Rafah, Deir Al-Balah and the southern city of Khan Younis.
Gaza only has 200 coronavirus testing kits and 65 intensive care beds. Rights groups have warned that this severely damaged open-air prison is one of the most vulnerable and explosive places in the world in the event of an outbreak that even first world countries are struggling with.
A de facto Hamas government runs the Gaza Strip, while its rival, the Palestinian Authority (PA), exercises a level of authority with the approval of and in coordination with the Israeli occupation in the West Bank.
The Gaza Strip is almost two weeks behind the West Bank, where the first cases were confirmed 5 March in the Bethlehem area. Patients are placed at a special facility for coronavirus in the town of Turmus Ayya, near Ramallah.
Palestinian sources told the Israeli daily Haaretz that most of the West Bank patients diagnosed in recent days are workers returning from jobs in Israel or in Israeli settlements. They expressed concern about seeing a possible outbreak in villages in zones the PA exercises limited authority.
The coronavirus pandemic is bringing attention to the nature of the Israeli occupation’s apartheid-like nature, this time highlighting the gap between the healthcare provided for its citizens and the Palestinian population on its western and southeast borders.
According to Sari Bashi, a human rights lawyer with Gisha, an Israeli NGO advocating freedom of movement of Palestinians, the West Bank and Gaza combined have 295 ventilators. This translates to only six for every 100,000 people.
Meanwhile Israel has 2,173 ventilators: 24 for every 100,000 people.
“Stopping the spread of coronavirus in Gaza is an obligation of the Israeli and Palestinian authorities. It’s not an act of charity,” she said. “Control equals responsibility.”
As an occupying force, Israel — by international humanitarian and human rights law — is responsible for the safety and welfare of civilians living in the Occupied Territories. But since its disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Israel denies this responsibility, while enforcing the land, sea and air siege of Gaza since 2007.
Despite Israeli fears of a security explosion and chaos in Gaza in the event of an outbreak, Tel Aviv has shown no signs of easing the blockade.
On 27 March, Israeli Occupation Forces confiscated a coronavirus clinic in the West Bank and destroyed emergency homes constructed for residents evacuated from their homes. On the same day, the Israeli Civil Administration demolished three seasonal homes of farmers who are residents of Jerusalem, in the village of ‘Ain Al-Duyuk Al-Tahta west of Jericho.
The UN humanitarian coordinator has released $1 million from the pooled humanitarian fund to address immediate priority needs. It is only a fraction of the funds required.
The Palestinian call for international aid to address the pandemic could not have come at a worse time when world budgets are shrinking or feeling the effect of coronavirus across the global economy.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) said this week that it is struggling to provide much needed support to maintain its services.
“I am very, very much concerned about budget and the financial situation,” said Gwyn Louis, West Bank director of UNRWA affairs. “We have something until the end of April to continue with our services, but then we have no additional funding in getting the corona response and to meet the needs of the community.”
UNRWA runs medical clinics, schools and provides social assistance to some five million Palestinians. However, with the coronavirus outbreak, all schools were shut down and most health work was focused on dealing with the effects of the pandemic.
Managing such a crisis would be very difficult, UNRWA director in Gaza Matthias Schmale told reporters Sunday. “It is unreasonable to think that a place like Gaza can be isolated from the world, which puts everyone, including the people, under the responsibility of stopping the spread of the virus,” he said.
“The worst scenario is the spread of the virus under a total closure.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly