Humanity cannot fail Gaza yet again
The coronavirus has just found another fertile environment. For weeks, the 2 million Palestinians crammed into Gaza have hoped and prayed that the virus would not breach the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of this Eastern Mediterranean open-air prison. Those days are over.
On Sunday, Gazans work up to the news that two Palestinians had tested positive. They are now in quarantine alongside more than 1,000 others in 18 centers, largely school classrooms. The two confirmed as being infected had traveled back from Pakistan via Egypt, so the authorities are worried about who they may have infected en route, including fellow travelers and border guards. The best-case scenario is that the virus does not escape the quarantine, but these facilities are hardly high-tech. Even if this first infection is contained, it is just a matter of time before Gaza will be hit, and here it may spread at warp speed.
The developed world may barely notice. Western Europe is dealing with its first real crisis since 1945. And it might seem a tad tame for a strip of land that has seen four wars with Israel and a civil conflict since 2006. In Europe and the US, citizens are digesting the prospect of self-isolation, lockdown, and quarantine for several months. But Palestinians in Gaza have spent almost 13 years in lockdown under an Israeli-led blockade that renders it effectively an open-air prison.
In fact, Gazans have a longer history of such isolation. Back in 1994, I visited Gaza as the Israeli forces were leaving as part of the Oslo process, redeploying to the edge of the prison. Gazans had spent most of the time from 1988 until then under nightly curfews. Breaking the Israeli-imposed curfew certainly had consequences, largely for their bones. Now they can go out until all hours and even barbecue on the beach, which they had previously not even been able to visit.
What are the options for Gazans? Isolation is challenging when you inhabit one of the most crowded places on Earth. Palestinians in refugee camps often survive 10 to a room. They have also endured travel restrictions all those years, so there is no port or airport to shut down.
Globally, authorities remind everyone to routinely wash their hands with soap. Houses are starting to stink of disinfectant. Hygiene is essential. This is sound advice all should follow — if they can. But just try this in Gaza, with its sewage lagoons and garbage-strewn alleys. Children run barefoot through all of this. In Gaza, 97 percent of the population lacks access to clean water and a third of homes are not connected to the sanitation system. Many Gazans cannot afford soap, while hand sanitizer is but a dream. Twelve years ago, the Israeli water authority head warned me never to drink the water in Gaza. “It’s either sewage or seawater,” he said. The situation has only gotten worse since then, making a mockery of Westerners fighting over toilet tolls. Face masks and gloves are also only a dream.
Gazans would love to be able to stockpile vital necessities. Even in the best of times, if markets were laden with goods, most people lack the purchasing power to buy them. Most Gazans are dependent on aid and surviving off ever-decreasing donor largesse.
Isolation is challenging when you inhabit one of the most crowded places on Earth
Gaza’s population is young — 70 percent of residents are aged under 30 — but sadly malnourished and often with compromised immune systems. Many suffer from anemia and lack essential minerals and vitamins; hardly a surprise when 68.5 percent of the population is food insecure. This is no accident. Back in 2006, an adviser to the Israeli prime minister explained that “the idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”
Developed nations are worried about their economy crashing. But Gaza is ahead on that one too. Young Palestinians do not have to worry about losing their jobs, as 70 percent do not have one. The Gazan economy cannot crash because it does not exist. Some Palestinians in Gaza were buying paracetamol not in packets but as single pills.
There can be few places on the planet less prepared for this pandemic than Gaza. It has a chronic shortage of essential medicines. Gaza’s total intensive care bed count is just 60, some of which are not functional due to staffing issues, leaving just 20. It has 60 ventilators, according to the World Health Organization. Israel has sent 200 testing kits into Gaza, “along with hundreds of protective suits and masks for medical teams.” Its officials stress that it is in Israel’s interests to stop the spread of the disease.
Israel should be doing far more and, who knows, perhaps it could yet surprise many. It remains the occupying power in Gaza by virtue of controlling the air, sea and land borders. As such, Israel has a legal duty under article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to try to stop the spread of infectious diseases and epidemics, as well as to ensure the well-being of the population. It also has a self-interested reason; namely to ensure that the virus does not spread uninhibited into neighboring populations.
It is time to show that humanity does not start and end in one’s own street. Slashing aid budgets is not the response. Gaza’s crisis predated the coronavirus outbreak. All the reasons why it could reach catastrophic levels are man-made, from the refugee camps to overcrowding and from the shortage of electricity to the lack of hygiene and clean water. The decades-long failure to find a solution for this small strip of land leaves its civilian population more vulnerable than most on the planet. The international community has failed Gaza time and time again. It is time to break that cycle.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech