Sitting Ducks - GulfToday

Sitting Ducks

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Gaza

The Gaza strip is one of the most densely populated places in the world.

People living in coronavirus-quarantined communities around the world are now experiencing locked-ins similar to the situation in Gaza where two million Palestinians have been besieged and blockaded by Israel for 24 years. Ever since the Hamas movement won the 1996 legislative election, Gazans have been partially quarantined by Israel. The quarantine was tightened after Hamas took control in 2007. Israel fears the largely submissive West Bank could be infected by Hamas’ rejection of the Israeli occupation and the adoption by West Bankers of both peaceful and violent forms of resistance.

When Israel withdrew its soldiers and colonists from Gaza in 2005, it retained control of the narrow strip’s land borders, sea access and air space. Everyone who comes and goes is monitored by Israel and all goods entering Gaza arrive though the Israeli terminal at Kerem Shalom. Gaza is completely locked-in and locked-down.

Fortunately, at the time of writing, Gaza was one of the few places on the globe where there were no confirmed coronavirus cases although 63 are being quarantined at a field hospital near  the southern city of Rafa and 2,667 are confined to their homes.  Most  who have been isolated  arrived from Egypt where the virus has taken hold. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has sent 200 test kits, via Israel, to Gaza. This does not amount to a serious supply if infections are confirmed.

If the virus is confirmed and spreads, Gaza could be decimated by the plague. The strip is one of the most densely populated places in the world. Households have many members; apartment blocks contain scores of people and are jammed tightly together on narrow streets. Most Gazans have no way to self-isolate. They must face the virus together.

Gaza has tried to protect itself by, belatedly, shutting entry points to both Israel and Egypt, closing schools and universities and limiting public worship. This prevents the 7,000 Palestinians from Gaza from going to jobs in Israel, but protects their families and others from infection by the virus while they are in Israel where numbers of confirmed cases are rising rapidly. A plague could decimate Gazans who are already at the end of their tethers physically and psychologically.

Gaza has been warned by the situation in the West Bank, where Palestinians also hold jobs in Israel and interact with Israeli colonists and visitors. There are more than three dozen cases in the West Bank, most in Bethlehem where Palestinians were infected by European pilgrims.

Gaza is almost certainly the most vulnerable place on earth. Israel mounted major attacks on Gaza in 2008-09 and 2014, devastating infrastructure, homes, schools, factories and farms. Between 2013-15, Israel and Egypt systematically shut down more than 1,500 tunnels dug under the Gaza border with Egypt, turning off the flow of everything Israel denied Gazans and deepening the impact of Israel’s siege and blockade. It assaults Gazans’ physical well-being by denying them essential foods, medical supplies and equipment, fuel, electricity and materials for construction and manufacturing.

Eighty per cent of Gazans depend on external food aid to survive. UN-registered refugees constitute 70 per cent of the population. The jobless rate is more than 50 percent. Water sources are saline and polluted. Raw sewage flows into the Mediterranean sea off the Gaza coast because the treatment is inadequate. UN experts predicted that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2016. Gazans have no option but to stay on.

After March 2018, tens of thousands of Palestinians took part in the mainly non-violent weekly “March of Return” near the fence erected by Israel on its border with the strip. They demanded their return to their towns, villages and lands conquered by Israel in 1948-49. Although the march has been suspended due to the coronavirus, hundreds of Gazans have been killed and thousands wounded, straining the strip’s blockade-weakened health service and hospitals. They lack drugs, ventilators required for serious cases of the virus, protective clothing and masks for doctors and nurses and large number of test kits and the means to read results.

The global spread of the virus coincides with the worst-ever financial crisis in its 70 years of history of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) caring for Palestinian refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. UNRWA’s Gaza Director of Operations Mattias Schmale announced that the agency has a $1 billion (Dhs3.7b) deficit which could force it to make difficult decisions about the continuation of basic services before the end of April. Donor countries have pledged $400 million (Dhs1.5b) for the $1.2m (Dhs4.4m) budget for this year. UNRWA has been struggling financially since early 2018 when the Trump administration cut the US donation from $360m (1.3b) to $60m (Dhs220m) and cancelled all further contributions. This has deprived UNRWA of one-third of its funding. UNRWA provides rations, health, education and welfare for five million Palestinian refugees, including the 1.4 million refugees in Gaza.

A plague killing thousands of Palestinians in Gaza would be an international public relations nightmare for Israel, which has relied on global toleration of its cruel treatment of the Palestinian people, denial of their rights and expropriation of their homeland. A high number of virus deaths in Gaza could even spark a third intifada. Israel is, after all, the author of Gaza’s main miseries.

Therefore, Israel must do all in its power to provide Gaza with the means to effectively battle the virus and deal with afflictions which weaken the populace, making Gazans liable to contract the illness. However, over the past year Israel has been unable to form a government. This means Binyamin Netanyahu has remained prime minister without the power to take major political initiatives.

Since Gaza could face the spread of the virus sooner rather than later, the current caretaker government — although preoccupied with rising infection among Israelis — must make an all-out effort to contain and counter the virus in Gaza. Having persecuted, colonised, attacked, besieged and blockaded Gaza for decades, Israel must now provide early and effective care for both indigenous Gazans and the Palestinians who became refugees in Gaza at the time Israel was established.

 

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