By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
Observers of the Gaza Strip have been warning for years that its economic and social systems are on the verge of meltdown; the coronavirus pandemic now knocking on its door may be the last straw. Unless Israel and the international community act with conviction and a sense of urgency, they will leave 2 million people to fend for themselves with a limited toolbox, and reliant on luck.
The people of Gaza have for decades been enduring dire conditions, which have worsened since 2006 when Israel imposed a brutally punitive blockade of the Strip after Hamas was voted into power. A succession of wars and violent conflicts between Israel and Hamas have led to widespread destruction, the loss of many lives and a health system teetering on the verge of collapse. Only the heroic efforts of medical staff, despite shortages of drugs and equipment, have prevented a humanitarian disaster. But if the coronavirus spreads throughout Gaza it will mean an unthinkable death toll, hastened by the limited supply of ventilators and protective equipment, as well as the complete collapse of the economy.
If anyone hoped for a silver lining to the appalling effects of the blockade of Gaza, it was that it would at least be isolated and protected from the pandemic. But unfortunately its people, who have endured so much for so long, have not been spared, and nine cases of infection had been identified by the end of March. We must also remember that the level of testing is low, and the nightmare scenario of an outbreak in a densely populated space with unhygienic conditions and no adequate health service may now become a reality, along with the dire consequences that would follow.
Israel has long washed its hands of any responsibility for the situation in Gaza, and blamed Hamas for every misfortune that has befallen its people. But whatever the shortcomings of Hamas — and there are many — and whatever the extent of the group’s responsibility for conditions in Gaza, Israel, along with the part played by Egypt, maintains and guards this small enclave as the world’s largest open-air prison. Israel might have withdrawn from Gaza in 2005, but it is still ever-present there. It is an occupying force and has legal obligations for the well-being of the Gazan people, in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention and Israel’s High Court; the court has ruled that, given Israel’s control of border crossings, which means that Gazans are dependent on it for all movement of people and goods in and out of the Strip, Israel has a legal obligation to provide for their essential humanitarian needs. If that is true in “normal” times, then the loomingcoronavirus catastrophe reinforces it.
Beth Oppenheimer, director of international relations for the Israeli humanitarian organisation Gisha, told me of her worries at the prospect of the spread of coronavirus in Gaza: “The Strip’s critical infrastructure and services have been decimated by decades of Israeli occupation, 13 years of suffocating closure, and recurrent conflicts. Gaza’s ailing health sector is ill prepared to manage a crisis of this magnitude.” It is no surprise, then, to learn that her organization, whose goal is to protect the freedom of movement of Palestinians, especially Gaza residents, and ensure that they enjoy rights enshrined by international and Israeli law, has written to Israel’s Defense Minister, Nafatali Bennet, and to the coordinator of government activities in the territories, appealing, or more accurately demanding, that Israel take immediate action to “ensure the maintenance of a functioning economy and food security in the Gaza Strip.”
One can only share Gisha’s, concerns, and declare most emphatically that without the immediate removal of restrictions on supplies of so-called “dual-use” materials needed for farming and fishing, and permitting commodities to leave Gaza to be traded in the West Bank, this tiny enclave faces even further catastrophic consequences. But even if Israel were to enact those measures promptly and decisively it would be some while before they had any effect. A population, more than half of whom live below the poverty line and suffer from food insecurity, and a third of whom live in abject poverty, is much more susceptible to the consequences of any pandemic, let alone COVID-19.
Putting aside for a moment the legal and moral obligations Israel has toward Gaza, it would also serve Israel’s interests and make good sense to ease the enclave’s health and economic pressures. If COVID-19 spreads across Gaza, responsibility will stick with those who had the power to prevent (or at least mitigate) it and neglected to do so. The Israeli government can no longer adhere to the old assumption that the worse it gets in Gaza the closer will come the downfall of Hamas. This has already failed to materialize; now, responsibility for – heaven forfend – mass infections and an enormous death toll in Gaza would be, and seen to be, to a large extent Israel’s.
On the other hand, were Israel to take a more considered approach, in collaboration with the Palestinian Authority and Hamas while involving the international community, it could — just could — be a move in the right direction, and change the discourse between Israel and Gaza. Such a move may not achieve immediate reconciliation, but could at least lead to a more conciliatory attitude that saw the people in Gaza as human beings and future peaceful neighbors, not mere pawns in the war with Hamas.
*Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. He is also an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media.