Israel must take responsibility for Gaza

Israel must take responsibility for Gaza

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A Palestinian couple wed amid the coronavirus epidemic in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on March 23. (AFP)

All around the world, the coronavirus has worked its way into society’s fissures, widening them and exposing each society’s unique vulnerabilities. In the US, it is a deeply unequal health care system and a nationalistic president who rejects multilateralism. In Israel, it is parliamentary paralysis and a prime minister poised to salvage his power. In Gaza, it is a health care sector decimated by conflict and closure by Israel, and a governing authority deprived of the power to govern. 

Seventeen coronavirus cases had been identified in the Gaza Strip at the time of writing, but, after the return of 1,630 residents from Egypt last week, this may continue to rise. As one of the most densely populated places in the world — where most of the 2 million residents live in close quarters or cramped refugee camps, and with high levels of poverty and food insecurity — an outbreak would be catastrophic. 

Ever since Hamas took control of the Strip in 2007, Israel and neighboring Egypt have placed punitive restrictions on the movement of people and goods. The closure policy is said to be driven by security concerns — Hamas has indeed carried out acts of terrorism against civilians and sabotaged past peace negotiations with violence — but, in reality, many of the restrictions are driven by a misguided and morally corrupt logic that applying pressure on Hamas or on the civilian population can help to achieve political goals. Both Israel and Egypt have relented on some of the most egregious measures over the years, revealing the flimsiness of the security pretext. 

Thirteen years of closure have resulted in a manmade humanitarian crisis. The people of Gaza are routinely denied access to electricity, clean water, medical care and building materials. Gaza’s economy is in crisis, with unemployment at 45.1 percent in 2019. Residents cannot freely travel to the West Bank or abroad to access education, work, medical care or family. The health care system has been shattered, with chronic shortages in skilled medical staff, medicines and medical equipment. Now, Gaza has a severe lack of ventilators, protective equipment and testing kits. 

Israel is a disengaged occupier in Gaza. It continues to maintain comprehensive control over the Strip, despite pulling its settlers and army out in 2005. As a result of this control, Israel has an obligation to protect basic rights and living conditions in Gaza, as set out in the Fourth Geneva Convention and the First Protocol to the Geneva Convention. It has done exactly the opposite.

As the coronavirus crisis unfolds, the Israeli government has depicted itself as a magnanimous power, generously “allowing” humanitarian goods to enter the Strip. Tel Aviv’s cooperation has been lauded by the UN. But such gestures of goodwill are insufficient — and hollow. Defense Minister Naftali Bennett this month spoke of conditioning coronavirus aid to Gaza upon the return of the remains of two Israeli soldiers held since the 2014 war. Now is the time for the international community to push Israel to meet its longstanding obligations in assuring Palestinian human rights. 

What should Israel and the international community do? Israel should acknowledge its responsibility for the health of Palestinians across the Occupied Territories and use its own resources where needed. Israel must take Palestinian territory into consideration in its coronavirus contingency plans, and communicate these transparently. What, for instance, would Israel do in the event of a serious outbreak in Gaza? Will it mobilize ventilators to the Strip? Will it let COVID-19 patients into Israel, as well as other unwell and vulnerable patients? 

Israel has purposefully choked Gaza’s economy for more than a decade. Now, as the world economy reels from the blow of coronavirus, Israel must take additional care to protect Gaza’s. Even if Gaza manages to contain the spread of the virus, its economic reverberations will be felt for many years to come. Economic collapse in Gaza could threaten to end the unstable cease-fire between Hamas and Israel — which is predicated on socioeconomic improvement in the Strip — and thus reignite conflict. With this in mind, Israel should facilitate the movement of goods to the maximum extent. It should remove unnecessary restrictions on so-called “dual-use” items (with both a civilian and military application); for instance, materials for fixing boats or fertilizer for farming. The focus should be on those sectors that provide food for the local population and that could provide a source of income for thousands of people, such as fishing, farming and processed foods. Once safe to do so, Israel should remove arbitrary restrictions on the movement of people, going far beyond its current approach, which only allows travel in “exceptional humanitarian circumstances.”

Now is the time for the international community to push Israel to meet its longstanding obligations in assuring Palestinian human rights.

Beth Oppenheim

The international community should offer financial aid to support the coronavirus response across the Occupied Territories. The UN’s Humanitarian Country Team estimates the need at $34 million, including $6 million for Gaza. However, money alone is inadequate — it must be accompanied by diplomatic engagement with Israel, making clear its obligation to the people of Gaza as an occupying power. Otherwise, international actors run the risk of detracting from Israel’s legal obligations. Actors like the UN, EU and US must also ensure that the “no-contact” policy with Hamas, designated as a terrorist organization, does not interfere with essential humanitarian work.

Beyond this pandemic, the international community needs to break free of its never-ending crisis-complacency cycle. Tensions erupt, rockets, missiles and rhetoric are traded — statements are issued, relief is offered. Tensions dissipate and, with them, the impetus for policy change. International actors should take the opportunity to capitalize on the glimpses of cooperation that we have witnessed between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, ensuring this survives our moment of crisis.

It is critical that Israel faces up to its obligations to Gaza. The health, stability and security of Israelis and Palestinians alike depend upon it. 

  • Beth Oppenheim is Director of International Relations at the Israeli human rights organization Gisha. Twitter: @BethOppenheim
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