As coronavirus crisis tightens grip on Middle East, Palestinians in Gaza gird for an invisible invasion

As coronavirus crisis tightens grip on Middle East, Palestinians in Gaza gird for an invisible invasion
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The Ministry of Health has warned that Gaza’s infrastructure is poor owing to years of restrictions. (AFP)
As coronavirus crisis tightens grip on Middle East, Palestinians in Gaza gird for an invisible invasion
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The World Health Organization has provided protective equipment to Palestinian health workers. (AFP)
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Updated 26 March 2020

As coronavirus crisis tightens grip on Middle East, Palestinians in Gaza gird for an invisible invasion

As coronavirus crisis tightens grip on Middle East, Palestinians in Gaza gird for an invisible invasion
  • Police have announced the closure of cafes, restaurants and markets across the coastal enclave
  • At least 1,271 Palestinians have been admitted to 18 quarantine centers set up by the Ministry of Health

GAZA CITY: As the deadly coronavirus disease (COVID-19) spreads across the Middle East, relative isolation might seem to be an advantage in keeping a community safe.

However, as the recent confirmation by Gaza’s Hamas-controlled Ministry of Heath of two COVID-19 cases in the enclave demonstrates, no population in the Middle East, or indeed the wider world, can afford to assume it is invulnerable.

Even before the global pandemic hit, the public health system in the densely populated Palestinian territory was fragile.

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At least 1,271 Palestinians have been admitted to quarantine centers established in the Gaza Strip.

This was only to be expected after the long years of conflict with Israel, a security cum economic blockade since 2007, and the failure of the competing Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, to bury the hatchet.

Now, the tension is palpable. The police have announced the closure of cafes, restaurants and markets across the Gaza Strip. Gatherings in wedding halls and for prayers in mosques have been suspended.

The expectation is that restrictions will increase if more infections are reported.

In Israel, where the number of infections has crossed the 2,000 mark, authorities have adopted drastic measures to limit the movement of Palestinians entering the country.

The government body in charge of coordinating Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories has said all border crossings to Gaza and the West Bank will remain shut.

Anecdotal evidence would indicate a spike in demand for food and essential items across Gaza since the announcement of the two COVID-19 cases.

“We did not find medicines in hospitals before the last crisis hit Gaza,” said Ibrahim Aydiya, 44, a grocery store owner in Gaza City. “I don't know what will happen if infections spread inside the territory.”

According to Aydiya, there has been a significant increase in purchases by Gaza residents since the beginning of the month.

“I do not know what the poor are doing in Gaza, but since the announcement of the two cases, people have become increasingly interested in stocking up,” he said.

Overall, the Palestinian territories have recorded 62 COVID-19 cases, all in the Fatah-run West Bank, except the two in Gaza. At least 16 of the patients are said to have recovered.




Palestinian artists Samah Said (L) and Dorgham Krakeh paint N95 protective masks for a project raising awareness about the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Gaza City on March 24, 2020. (AFP / MOHAMMED ABED)

The Ministry of Health has set up 18 quarantine centers in the Gaza Strip, since the beginning of March. All arrivals from the Rafah and Erez crossings are placed in quarantine for 14 days as a precaution.

At least 1,271 Palestinians have been admitted to these centers, according to official sources.

On March 22, the Ministry of Health said the two Palestinians in question had recently returned from Pakistan through the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza and were placed under quarantine after they showed COVID-19 symptoms.

Many among Gaza’s 2 million inhabitants are not surprised that despite their insular existence, they are not immune from the unfolding global health crisis.

“It is impossible for Gaza to be completely isolated, and the spread of the infection across the world has been very fast,” said Fathi Lafi, a 52-year-old Palestinian.

“We do not live alone in this world. Our exposure to the coronavirus risk was limited, and this bought us time, but the virus has now reached our community.”

On the question of what Gaza can do under the circumstances, Lafi’s response summarized the attitude of a large swathe of Gaza’s population.

“The world does not care about us,” he told Arab News. “We should only care about ourselves.”

Help and advice are on hand, however. The World Health Organization (WHO) has assisted the Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Health in the form of protective clothing for health workers to handle people infected with COVID-19.

In Gaza, the agencies dealing with public health have been supplied test kits for infection detection.

Speaking to Arab News, Abdel Nasser Soboh, director of the WHO office in Gaza, said the UN is providing assistance to health authorities in the territory as it grapples with the emergency.

He said his office is in the process of providing ventilators and intensive care beds to support the health sector as it prepares for the worst-case scenario.

According to Medhat Abbas, director-general of primary care at the Ministry of Health, the state of the medical infrastructure is precarious owing to years of restrictions.

“Over the past several years, we have called on international institutions and the world to help us, but the response has been limited,” he told Arab News.

“We are in a difficult situation. Our capabilities are limited. However, we are in a state of emergency now and, so far, things are under control.”




The territory’s first cases arrived in Gaza from Pakistan. (AFP)

Abbas said Gaza has 40 Intensive Care Unit beds in normal times, adding that in a public health emergency, the number could be increased to a maximum of 100.

Referring to the two confirmed patients, he said: “They are in quarantine. All those who were in contact with them have been quarantined. There is no need for panic at this stage.”

He cautioned, nevertheless, that if the situation worsens, Gaza will need the world’s help.

“We can deal with existing cases and limited numbers, but if the outbreak intensifies, as is happening in some countries, we will need international intervention,” Abbas said.

It is not just the restrictions imposed on the movement of individuals and goods, including medical resources, that have weakened Gaza’s health defenses.

Chronic energy shortage has contributed to reductions in the availability and quality of health services.

Gaza’s health sector is plagued by a shortage of medical equipment and supplies, including stocks of antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs.

The problems have been compounded by the protracted rivalry between Hamas and Fatah and their failure to forge a common strategy to deal with crises.

According to a WHO report, “social determinants of health” have seriously deteriorated in Gaza.

Groundwater supplies are “essentially unfit for human consumption.” A large portion of untreated wastewater flows directly into the Mediterranean Sea. A crippled economy also weighs heavily on the population.

Jamie McGoldrick, Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, said the coronavirus outbreak is a “big worry” for the UN.

“We are fearful because of the conditions on the ground, because of overcrowding and because of the nature of the system that supports people who might be affected,” McGoldrick has been quoted by UN News as saying.

“We don’t have the capacity to manage an outbreak.”




The UN has warned that Gaza’s high poverty rate could lead to a health crisis. (AFP)

According to McGoldrick, the major issues include a lack of funding and the ability to source critical materials in the global market at the right time.

Referring specifically to personal protective material, testing kits and ventilators, McGoldrick said: “There is huge shortage globally, and if we don’t have the money to purchase in the region, it would be a problem.

“We are in close cooperation with the Israelis over buying from Israel.”

Gaza’s Ministry of Economy has given assurances that current stocks of essential items in Gaza’s shops and markets are sufficient to last weeks.

“Except for shortages in local markets attributable to liquidity issues, goods are still flowing as usual from the Karm Abu Salem crossing,” Abdel-Fattah Mousa, spokesman for the Ministry of Economy, said.

Even so, Gaza is rife with fear and anxiety as the COVID-19 pandemic tightens its grip on the region.

Sumaiya Al-Danaf, 50, who buys groceries from Aydiya’s store in Gaza City, spoke perhaps for many when she said she is concerned about an outbreak in Gaza.

“The government in Gaza is weak and is incapable of dealing with a crisis due to the blockade and divisions,” she told Arab News.

“We have been in isolation for 14 years. The world has suffered from just 14 days of quarantine. It is the unjust world that does not feel for us.”


Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity

Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity
Updated 54 min 7 sec ago

Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity

Abbas poll decree lifts hopes of Palestinian unity
  • First elections in 15 years “will usher in badly needed democracy”
  • The PA will hold legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31

AMMAN: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s announcement of the first parliamentary and presidential elections in 15 years has raised hopes of an end to longstanding divisions, but skeptics doubt it will bring about serious change.
According to decrees issued by the presidential office on Friday, the Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, will hold legislative elections on May 22 and a presidential vote on July 31.
Hanna Naser, head of the Palestinian Central Elections Commission, told a packed press conference a day earlier that the decrees will usher in a badly needed democratic process.
Naser said the elections will be transparent and will deliver a functioning legislative council, adding: “After 15 years without a legislative body, it is important to have accountability through a council elected by the people.”
Jibril Rajoub, secretary of the Fatah movement and a key force behind the election deal, said on Palestine TV that the decrees are a major breakthrough and reflect a Palestinian commitment to democratic principles.
Rajoub said that the elections commission will be responsible for all aspects of the poll, and that a meeting of all Palestinian factions next week in Cairo will help resolve any remaining issues.
Hussein Sheikh, minister of civil affairs and member of the Fatah Central Committee, tweeted that the presidential decrees are “an important step to strengthen democracy and partnership in a unified political regime that ensures the end of the split and will create a unified vision for a cooperative effort aimed at ending the occupation and accomplishing freedom and liberty for our people.”
Hamas welcomed the decrees, which include a commitment by all participants that the PLO represents Palestinians, and is responsible for foreign affairs and negotiations.
The decrees stipulate elections for a 132-member legislative council that will include Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza on a full proportional basis.
Presidential elections will follow in July and the Palestine National Council will hold elections wherever possible for candidates in different locations. All lists must have a woman as the third and fourth candidates on the list, with at least 26 percent of the next council to be female.
However, Ghassan Khatib, a lecturer at Bir Zeit University and a former minister, told Arab News that while he strongly supports the elections, he is worried about the quality of the poll.
“I am concerned that the elections will reflect the wishes of the political elite since the lists will be national and will be made up by political leaders who might not give enough attention to local communities and their needs,” he said.
Khatib, who founded the Jerusalem Center for Communication Studies, said that polls show Fatah could win the coming elections if it can present a unified list.
Hani Masri, director of the Masarat think tank, said that holding elections before national reconciliation is complete is a “formula for trouble.”
“Issuing presidential decrees for elections before reconciliation is doing things in reverse order,” he said. “To have elections, the land mines must be removed. If we don’t address some of these problems, we are inviting trouble,” he wrote on his Facebook page.
One suggestion to overcome this issue has been that the two main parties, Fatah and Hamas, agree on a joint list and a single nominee for president.
Marwan Muasher, vice president of Carnegie Endowment for International Studies, told Arab News that national unity is a necessary first step.
“National elections serve to renew Palestinian legitimacy, which has been significantly affected,” he said.
Palestinians are also unsure if Israel will allow East Jerusalem residents to take part in the elections. Under the Oslo accords, Jerusalem residents can vote at local post offices.