Did COVID-19 spark the latest Gaza violence? - analysis

“They think that by worsening the security situation they can get immediate attention and intervention,” maybe even more vaccinations.

A Hamas militant hands out a protective face mask to a Palestinian boy during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the central Gaza Strip September 12, 2020. (photo credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA / REUTERS)
A Hamas militant hands out a protective face mask to a Palestinian boy during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in the central Gaza Strip September 12, 2020.
Hamas’ desperate desire to receive COVID-19 assistance is part of the reason for the security escalation over the weekend, senior analysts suggested to The Jerusalem Post.
More than 40 rockets were fired at Israel from the Gaza Strip over the weekend – the largest escalation since the start of the coronavirus crisis since March last year.
While Hamas did not take formal responsibility for the attacks – a number of small terror groups operating in the Hamas controlled Gaza Strip took credit for the rocket attacks – Israel has said it believes the terror organization is behind the escalation. These groups, after all, cannot operate without Hamas’ approval.
Analysts have suggested, on the one hand, that the rockets were launched in a show of solidarity for Palestinians entangled in clashes with Israelis in Jerusalem and the West Bank. On the other hand, they have said, the rockets are part of the campaign to pressure Israel to allow the elections to take place in Jerusalem – and to show Hamas’ strength ahead of an election in which they hope to take part.
But according to Bar-Ilan University’s Dr. Barak Bouks, a senior research fellow at the Europa Institute, the Gazans may also have felt compelled to act due to the “severeness of the coronavirus situation” in the strip.
“They think that by worsening the security situation they can get immediate attention and intervention,” Bouks said – maybe even more vaccinations.
The COVID-19 situation in Gaza is worse than it has been since the start of the pandemic. There are more than 18,000 active cases in the strip, according to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. More than 820 people have died and deaths are on the rise by 15% in recent days.
“The COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose a formidable threat throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” Tor Wennesland, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, told the UN Security Council last Thursday. “I am seriously concerned by the significant rise in active cases in Gaza where the daily infection rate is reaching its highest level since the onset of the pandemic.
“As the socio-economic impact of the pandemic has significantly exacerbated a seemingly never-ending fiscal and economic crisis in both the West Bank and Gaza, support for the Palestinian Government’s response must continue to be a priority,” he continued, noting that the Palestinian Health Ministry had received more than 300,000 vaccine doses to date and while he “welcomed all efforts carried out thus far to vaccinate the Palestinian population ... the process needs to be accelerated and more vaccines are needed.”
“This means the situation is very bad,” Bouks said, noting that one must imagine that Hamas officials see the situation in Israel where the country is vaccinated and opening up and they are in lockdown and feel a sense of inequity.
While legally Israel may or may not have an obligation to vaccinate the Palestinians, Hamas says “they are entitled [to be vaccinated by Israel] according to their beliefs,” he said.
Last month, a former top official with the Health Ministry told the Post that Israel planned to prioritize the vaccination of the entire Palestinian population over the age of 16 once it inoculated its own citizens and received surplus doses.
But Israel has fully vaccinated more than 5 million citizens - more than 80% of its eligible population – and aside from inoculating about 120,000 Palestinians who work inside Israel and a few thousand healthcare workers, Israel has kept any surplus vaccines for itself.
The rationale of the health officials was that by vaccinating Palestinians, Israel would safeguard its own citizens, since it would help prevent cross-border infection, including new mutations. The former official said that Israel planned to initially use its supply of Moderna messenger RNA vaccines to accomplish this goal.
But as more Moderna vaccines have arrived in the country and Israel signed contracts for another 16 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that could be used through booster shots and / or children through the end of 2022, there has been no indication of plans to provide any of these doses to the Palestinians.
Rather, coronavirus commissioner Prof. Nachman Ash told Army Radio last week that Israel does not even want the 10 million doses of the AstraZeneca Vaccines that it purchased in November and is working with the company to have them sent elsewhere. He said that Israel has now ordered the right amount to secure the country through the end of next year and does not want to store vaccines that could ultimately expire.
The Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank numbers some 4.8 million people, of which around 36% are aged under 14, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book. Minors under 16 are not currently eligible for vaccination. OCHA shows that only 167,711 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have been inoculated.
As terror erupted in Jerusalem and around the strip, Wennesland called on the violence to stop.
“The indiscriminate launching of rockets towards Israeli population centers violates international law and must stop immediately,” Wennesland said in a statement.
But Bouks said that there must be a certain amount of frustration among the Palestinians who see Israel opening up while they are under lockdown on the other side of the fence.
“I don’t know if they are angry or not, but I don’t know how it can seem normal that on one side everything is green and blossoming and on the other side, nothing,” said former Israeli politician Amram Mitzna, who once sat on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and is a former commander of the Central Command. “Nothing for the Palestinians. It’s absurd. Lack of faith and depression are the best agents for bringing people to the streets.”
Former head of the Shin Bet Security Service Ami Ayalon said Israel made many mistakes throughout the coronavirus crisis and chief among them was its failure to consider the Palestinians when purchasing vaccines.
“Our prime minister was willing to give them [vaccines] to countries for political or diplomatic reasons and did not consider giving them to the Palestinians,” Ayalon said. “It is a severe mistake and it will impact the future.”
While he said that he does not believe that the escalation in Jerusalem is directly tied to COVID-19 in any way, “the fact that we did not play any part in helping them to face the coronavirus – yes, of course it is part” of the escalation.
Bouk said that the COVID-19 humanitarian crisis can in no way justify the Palestinians’ behavior and that both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas should prioritize their community’s health above violence.
“If launching rockets comes before vaccinating, I don't know what to say,” he said.
Similarly, security expert Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser told the Post that while the Palestinian Authority and Hamas may blame Israel for not vaccinating them or for the spike in coronavirus, “there is no justification for this.” But he admitted that “they nevertheless blame us.”
Israel missed an opportunity to make a gesture toward the Palestinians and now with violence escalating, the country is unlikely to get this opportunity back, Ayalon said.
“We are losing leverage,” he stressed. “If your enemy believes he has nothing to lose, there is no limit to his violence.
“I think it could have created leverage if the Palestinians had believed that we were helping them to face the virus, and that they might lose this assistance once they take to the streets,” he continued. “Perhaps if we had helped them, they would have been much more pragmatic.”