Israel-Palestine: COVID-19 intensifies the humanitarian crisis for Palestinians
Given the rapid spread of coronavirus around the world, there could be a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza if urgent action is not taken.
Or, to be more accurate, there could be an intensification of an existing humanitarian emergency.
The Gaza Strip is already on the brink of collapse as a consequence of a 13-year Israeli blockade of the territory. The blockade, which has meant the imprisonment and collective punishment of an entire civilian population, has brought the health system to its knees.
There are chronic shortages of drugs and other medical supplies.
Hospitals and clinics are frequently forced to get by on just 4-6 hours of electricity a day. Hospitals have been bombed and - sometimes obliterated - during Israel’s repeated brutal assaults on Gaza (in 2008-2009, 2012 and 2014). Israeli forces have also routinely attacked medical staff and ambulances.
Ominously, given what we know about the spread of coronavirus, Gaza is also one of the most densely populated places on earth. Families live in crowded and often unsanitary housing, much of which is not connected to a sewage system and has no access to safe water. Gazans, although disproportionately young, are nevertheless vulnerable to illness due to weakened immune systems and malnutrition.
A UN report from 2012 said that without a significant change to the blockade, conditions in Gaza would be unlivable by 2020. Well, here we are, and now there’s coronavirus.
On Wednesday the 25 March, the Palestinian authorities announced the first coronavirus death in the occupied Palestinian territory, only two days after the first reports of the virus in Gaza. Some of the world’s richest countries are struggling to contain the pandemic - how on earth can overstretched, under-resourced medics begin to cope in blockaded Gaza?
Hardly less worrying is the situation in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where 57 cases of COVID-19 have so far been diagnosed. Again, in poor areas and refugee camps, Palestinians face a higher risk of contagion due to inadequate water supply and precarious shared latrines.
As in Gaza, there's a significant shortage of protective equipment, ventilators and specialised medical staff.
Palestinians living under Israel’s oppressive occupation already saw their rights to health, safety, equality and freedom of movement crushed long before COVID-19. But with this new crisis their prospects look bleaker still.
As the occupying power, Israel has a legal duty to combat the spread of contagious diseases in the Palestinian territory, something it already fails to do.
As things stand, Palestinian patients frequently become seriously ill or even die waiting at checkpoints because of delays imposed by Israeli soldiers.
The simple truth is that Israel has been denying Palestinians their most basic human rights since the occupation began in 1967. It is unlikely Prime Minister Netanyahu’s deeply hostile government will now begin to safeguard at-risk Palestinians without significant international pressure, including from the UK Government.
More tragedy in the occupied Palestinian territory isn't inevitable. But time is running out.
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