Israel must adopt prophylactic and preventative measures to help ensure that the people of Gaza have what they need to battle the novel coronavirus. Otherwise, when the crisis is over, the world could examine how Israel managed the outbreak and judge the Jewish state accordingly.
“We created the largest jail on earth in Gaza,” said former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Ami Ayalon. “We treat almost two million people as prisoners…. Let’s assume they are bad guys and that’s why we keep them in jail. Even prisoners in jail have some rights and we have a responsibility when it comes to these prisoners.”
Hamas violently took power of the 25-mile coastal enclave in 2007 and proceeded to launch tens of thousands of rockets at Israeli civilians, killing and injuring many people and destroying property. As a result, Israel has partially and periodically reduced the ability of supplies such as fuel, electricity and medical equipment to enter Gaza. In addition, Israel has imposed a naval blockade on the Gaza Strip since then to prevent the smuggling of weapons.
Moreover, for the past three year, the Palestinian Authority’s sanctions slapped on the Strip by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to punish Hamas have further exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.
Hospitals often lack basic necessities and medications, including chemotherapy drugs.
In January, Prof. Raphi Walden, president of Physicians for Human Rights, told The Jerusalem Post that the situation in Gaza as “appalling… Just terrible conditions. The main hospital in Gaza has empty shelves, they are missing critical medications. There was a time they did not have the liquid needed to clean the skin before surgery. Everything is missing. It is a real humanitarian disaster there.”
So, what will be the result if there is a coronavirus outbreak in Gaza, where already 3,000 Gazans are in quarantine and nine (6.25%) have tested positive for the virus out of the 144 people who have been tested, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health?
First, let’s understand the situation on the ground:
Last week, large amounts of essential coronavirus products were delivered into Gaza through the Erez border crossing by the Defense Ministry's military unit COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories). Included in the delivery were hundreds of coronavirus testing kits, and a thousand protective medical gear kits. COGAT also coordinated the delivery of an additional 1,000 protective medical gear kits, together with 100 liters of 'alcogel,' with hygiene-maintaining and virus prevention uses earlier this month.
But it's not enough. Dana Moss, director of advocacy for Physicians for Human Rights Israel said that there are only 70 ICU beds and 65 respirators in the Gaza Strip. Moreover, “according to the United Nations, 95% of the water in Gaza is unfit for human consumption. How do you maintain sanitation?”
She said that the medical staff lacks training and that there is such immense overcrowding that quarantine is near impossible.
“Everyone is aware that once coronavirus comes to Gaza, it will be a crisis because the health system in Gaza is anyway in a state of catastrophe,” Moss said.
She added that there are around 9,000 patients who leave Gaza on a regular basis to receive treatment in hospitals in east Jerusalem or the West Bank - treatments that are not available in the Strip. Now, less people can leave because of restrictions imposed by Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to help contain the virus.
“What will happen when these 9,000 people start to die?” she asked. “Because Israel controls freedom of movement in and out of Gaza, there is a very strong argument that Israel has a duty to pass along medication and medical equipment” to the people there.
While there are international criteria for what “occupiers” must do during times of contagious diseases and epidemics, Israel no longer occupies the Gaza Strip, since it pulled out unilaterally in 2005. While the Jewish state does control the land, sea and airspace around the coastal enclave, Israel is poised with a choice of how to act.
On the one hand, the spread of the coronavirus into Gaza demonstrates that there is no such thing as complete separation of people. Before the first case last week, there were jokes going around that Gaza, blockaded from the rest of the world, was “the safest place in the world.”
Optimistically, one could hope that the fact that coronavirus penetrated Gaza would remind the Gazans and the Israelis that we are all one people and to the extent that this is a worldwide pandemic now is the time to work together.
However, what is more likely, is the pessimistic response: If Israel does not deliver to the people of the Gaza Strip the help they need, then their suffering could lead to an increase in violence, said Ayalon.
“After almost 40 years working for the security of Israel, I saw the behavior of peoples and societies when they are really, really in despair, when they lose any hope and when they feel they have nothing to lose,” Ayalon said. “If the people of Gaza feel they are going to die as a result of this crisis” he said they are likely to march against our soldiers and our people.
But he believes that the situation does not have to erupt in that way. Israel, he said, could see this likely upcoming humanitarian crisis as an opportunity to speak to the people of Gaza in a different language.
“When it comes to the humanitarian crisis, we can try to do everything to change the perception of the people in Gaza about the Israelis and Israel,” he said, making clear he did not mean Hamas, but the average citizens. “When all of us face a humanitarian crisis, we understand that we are all human beings and let’s try to see what we can do together and how we can cooperate.”
Ayalon acknowledged that Israel, like the rest of the world, is itself lacking enough equipment and protective gear to ensure the safety of its own people. As such, the country should not be expected to relinquish it to the Palestinians. Rather, he said, Israel should lead international efforts to get Gazans the help they need.
He said that even if Israel fails in ensuring the safety of the people of Gaza, “efforts in this case are not less important than the assistance that actually be able to happen… It sends a message.”
Ayalon said that Israel must open the borders to Gaza for anyone willing to enter and help, from Physicians for Human Rights in Israel to governments or NGOs from around the world.
“Let’s say China, now that it is a little after its peak of this crisis, is ready to send experts and maybe even equipment into Gaza,” Ayalon continued. “Even if we are not deeply excited about having the Chinese in the Gaza Strip, we need to approve it. We need to approve any government entering the Strip that wants to assist.”
Right now, Ayalon admitted that each state and society is occupied with its own coronavirus crisis. Most states are not going to be focused on Israel and Gaza. However, “on the day after,” he said, the international community will once again turn toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We cannot survive unless we are perceived as being a good-standing member of the international community,” Ayalon said. “We do not want to be the only members who ‘killed’ hundreds of people because we failed to take action.”