Unsurprisingly, Israel has not heeded requests to safeguard the health of Palestinian prisoners in its jails. Besides recommending “precautionary measures”, which are likely to provide no protection in confined spaces, it seems that Israel will persist with its medical neglect strategies, which have resulted in Palestinian prisoners dying. Yet again, there have not been, and nor are there likely to be, any repercussions from the international community.
The initial appeal by the prisoners has been followed up with a petition launched by the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society asking for international intervention. The petition calls for the release of over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners — the most vulnerable or susceptible to illness — given that Israel routinely disregards the health concerns and conditions of the people it puts behind bars. Two Israeli prison officers have already contracted the coronavirus Covid-19, and a recently released Palestinian prisoner has also tested positive, thus raising concerns about the spread of the virus while Israel, true to its extermination by stealth tactic, does nothing.
Appealing for urgent humanitarian action is unlikely to prompt UN action against Israel. Bureaucratic statements and recommendations have failed to put an end to Israeli practices such as administrative detention — jailing someone indefinitely with neither charge nor trial — and the abuse of minors in prison; the deprivation of rights, including family visits; and both timely and appropriate medical attention.
The fear of medical neglect among prisoners is justified. Since 1967, 222 Palestinian prisoners have died after Israel refused treatment for life-threatening illnesses, including cancer. If Israel deprives Palestinians of treatment for illnesses which are not contagious, how will it act when faced with the possibility of a pandemic spreading which has the potential to wipe out the stalwarts of Palestinian resistance to its military occupation?
On both political and humanitarian grounds, the UN should intervene to safeguard all Palestinian prisoners from the possibility of dying as a direct result of Israel’s withholding of treatment. However, the UN’s agenda is divested of protection for human rights, in particular those in association with colonial violence. The pandemic will not reduce international support for Israel and Palestinians risk becoming collateral damage in a political system which has lost its penchant for statements attesting to the illusion of international protection for human rights. The coronavirus has exposed an international political failure to protect the most vulnerable; Palestinian prisoners, forgotten until a coordinated hunger strike or a death makes headlines, are about to experience the collective intent to ignore a catastrophe in the making.
Palestinians have been forced into cooperation with the Israeli authorities to halt further contagion. As in other examples where their leaders work with and for Israel, however, the Palestinians are the least likely to reap the benefits, in particular if there is an increase in surveillance on behalf of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
As each country focuses on its concerns at home, global solidarity with Palestinians at a crucial moment is at an all-time low. For Palestinian prisoners, the consequences of such international disinterest are heightened. Double standards as regards the sense of urgency which the pandemic is evoking are being applied; Israeli cases of coronavirus are juxtaposed against security when it comes to speaking about Palestinians who have contracted the virus. Palestinian prisoners simply don’t matter as far the pedlars of Israel’s security narrative are concerned, even in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
Israel’s blockade of Gaza has turned the strip of land into the “world’s largest open-air prison.” And now the overcrowded enclave has its first confirmed cases of COVID-19
Palestinian volunteers sprays disinfectant a street at al-Shati refugee camp in Gaza City on March 16, 2020, during a campaign by Hamas to stem a novel coronavirus outbreak. – Islamist movement Hamas, which rules the besieged Gaza Strip, took the unusual step of shutting its borders with Israel and Egypt as a precaution against the virus. There are so far no documented COVID-19 cases in the enclave
By Belen Fernandez
Back in 2012, the United Nations predicted that the Gaza Strip would be “unlivable” by 2020 — not, of course, that it had been particularly livable at any point in recent history. Now under Israeli occupation for more than five decades — forget the withdrawal-that-wasn’t in 2005 — the tiny, severely overcrowded Palestinian coastal enclave has also endured a crippling blockade since 2007.
Unemployment and food insecurity are rampant, and 97 percent of Gaza’s drinking water is considered unsafe. Power cuts are continuous. Health care equipment and medicine are in short supply, and Palestinians requiring medical treatment outside Gaza are regularly denied permission to travel by Israeli authorities — who, it bears mentioning, are often directly responsible for the conditions necessitating treatment in the first place, as when the Israeli military maimed Palestinian protesters en masse in 2018–19. Nor is the dismal health care situation ameliorated by Israel’s habit of bombing hospitals and killing medical personnel.
What happens, then, when you add coronavirus to the whole mix? It seems we’re about to find out.
On March 22, Gaza confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19, prompting the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem to warn that the spread of the virus in the Strip “will be a massive disaster, resulting entirely from the unique conditions created by more than a decade of Israeli blockade.” Given that Gaza’s health care system is “already on the brink of collapse,” the group foresees a “nightmare scenario” — one that Israel “created and made no effort to prevent.”
The two initial coronavirus cases were Palestinians returning to Gaza from Pakistan. Seven more cases were subsequently reported among security guards stationed at the quarantine facility where the returnees were being held, and one additional case has now been confirmed.
Al Jazeera writes that Gaza’s two million residents have been “urged to take precautionary measures and to practice social distancing by staying home in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.” But how, pray tell, are people supposed to social distance in a space so jam-packed that there’s barely room to breathe? And what sort of psychological trauma will ensue when an already traumatized population is forced to self-imprison in the “world’s largest open-air prison”?
In 2012, the same year the UN predicted the impending uninhabitability of the Gaza Strip — a territory comprised mainly of Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel — then-Oxfam spokesman Karl Schembri posed the appropriate question: “How can you talk about post-traumatic stress interventions in Gaza when people are still in a constant state of trauma?”
He referenced the prevalence of traumatized youth in the aftermath of Israel’s 2008–9 Operation Cast Lead, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 300 children. This was followed by — among other homicidal sideshows —Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, in which the Israeli military eliminated nearly 200 Palestinians, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, in which they slaughtered 2,251 Palestinians (including 551 children).
Needless to say, mental health services are among the many medical offerings that are severely lacking in the Gaza Strip. And just like with Israeli bombardments, the coronavirus assault is guaranteed to produce psychological torment in an ultra-confined area where even the idea of physical escape is generally impossible.
As Israeli academic Neve Gordon wonders over at the Nation, “how can the 113,990 refugees living in [Gaza’s] Jabalia camp, which covers an area of only 0.54 square miles, maintain physical distance from one another?” There’s also the case of Al-Shati camp, where “the density is even worse, with 85,628 refugees residing in an area of 0.2 square miles” and only a single health center and food distribution center.
The upshot, according to Gordon, is that “within Gaza’s eight refugee camps, the systems organized to save lives — health care and food supply — will undoubtedly become lethal bottlenecks, petri dishes for the deadly” coronavirus.
To be sure, calls for ending the Israeli siege of Gaza — the only just and sensible thing to do, especially in this time of global pandemic — will largely fall on deaf ears. The majority of the Israeli public can be counted on to endorse whatever sort of deadliness might befall the Palestinians, and the United States can be relied on to underwrite Israel’s murderous policies in Gaza via billions of dollars in aid and perennial insistence that Israel has the right to “defend itself” against the Palestinians it is massacring. So the Israeli government feels comfortable bombing Gaza without pause, coronavirus or not.
Meanwhile, a recent Jerusalem Post editorial titled “Good job, Israel” asserts that “everyone” in Israel should “give themselves a collective pat on the back” for their exemplary response to coronavirus in the country, despite the fact that ultra-Orthodox “and Arab sectors … are taking longer to internalize the urgency and seriousness that the virus poses and what not adhering to the directives will lead to.”
After all, there’s no time like the present for a good douse of racism against Palestinians who have themselves long been treated by Israel as a disease.
The Post additionally stresses that “we are at war” against the coronavirus, and that “only through unity and perseverance will we be able to defeat this invisible enemy.” But seeing as the inhabitants of the already unlivable open-air prison next door are suddenly facing the catastrophic fallout of a biological war inflicted by a very visible Israeli enemy, it’s clear that no pats on the back whatsoever are in order — just global condemnation and an end to the blockade.
Khalil Abu Yahia is a 24 year-old English teacher in Gaza City. He spoke to Independent Jewish Voices Canada, on Skype from his house and a wide smile didn’t leave his face during the interview, even though he goes to dark places at times. He begins by offering his reflections on the arrival of the deadly Coronavirus in the Gaza Strip.
“For me, it’s like a deja-vu. We’ve been through things like this many times. Some people are saying, ‘we’ve faced the fourth strongest army in the world, so we’re not afraid of being prevented from going out in the streets.
“The responsibility for the situation lies with Israel and its army. Gaza is still under occupation, therefore under international law, Israel should be held accountable. Israel is responsible for our health — they need to be getting us our medicines and treatment, but they don’t.”
There are mounting fears that a COVID-19 outbreak, combined with the Israeli siege, could be a recipe for genocide in Gaza. To date, Israel has only allowed a few hundred Coronavirus test kits into the besieged territory with a population of nearly two million.
“The sad thing that we are thinking here in Gaza is that Israel is going to get away with this: they will not be held accountable for our health. Because if you ask yourself why we’re suffering, and why we’re not getting proper treatment for the virus, it’s because we weren’t born to Jewish mothers. Think about it. If I, Khalil, had been born to a Jewish mother, my health might be better and I would have access to treatments. And that biological racism that Israel is basing its policies on is killing us.
“In addition, there’s a conspiracy of silence that is killing us. The international community is watching what is happening in Gaza, and never does anything concrete to stop it.
“People have compared Gaza to a zoo. There have been reports that have said that Gaza would be unliveable in 2020, and this was without the Coronavirus. Well, now we are in 2020, and we just discovered the first nine cases of the virus in Gaza. God knows how many more cases there are. The situation is getting worse in Gaza. What we want to say to the world is ‘enough is enough’. If you don’t put the maximum pressure on Israel to lift the siege right now, Gaza will become a graveyard.”
I asked Khalil to describe the atmosphere in the streets of Gaza City today.
“Most people are saying, ‘isn’t it enough that we are under occupation, and have been under siege for the last 14 years?’ Isn’t that enough without the Coronavirus? Now we are expecting the world to say something.”
A State of Emergency Since 1948
“You know, in countries like Britain and America, they’ve been declaring states of emergency. We here in Gaza have been in a state of emergency since 1948. But no one has listened to us. So we’re asking, aren’t we human like you? Don’t we have feelings like you and problems that need to be solved? Why so much racism against us? This is what people are saying in Gaza.
The only people that will help the Palestinians are the Palestinian people themselves. No one heard us in 2008, no one heard us in 2012, and no one heard us in 2014. The only solution is ourselves.”
I asked Khalil about quarantines or other protective measures in place right now in Gaza.
“The police are saying you can’t have more than five people together at once, or have parties. You can’t do anything that brings people together. They have also closed the public markets. And of course no one can travel in or out of Gaza, but that hasn’t changed much since the beginning of the Coronavirus.”
“All Wars Are Etched in Our Minds”
People around the world right now are facing all sorts of travel restrictions, and I tell him that people are trying to learn from Palestinian experiences of life under siege. So I ask him how people in Gaza have managed to survive and cope.
“People here, like anyone else in the world, have feelings. I think that 100% of the population of Gaza is traumatized. They want to show they are coping with life, because they know life has to go on. Their hope is that the next generation will be able to make change. To be honest, though, you asked about how we have survived, but we haven’t survived. All wars are etched in our minds. We see it in our dreams.
“But now what we are saying is that Israeli apartheid needs to end. If Israel is saying they are a democratic country, fine, show us your democracy. But they are a democracy for Jews only.”
I agree with Khalil that the world hasn’t heard Gaza’s voice, but I ask him that if the world could hear his voice right now, what would he want to let people know as they face the Coronavirus pandemic.
“What you are experiencing right now, Gaza has been experiencing for decades. What you fear is not the worst for us. You, the world, may have not heard us, but we hear you, and we are responding to you.
What we want from the world is to show us solidarity. And to show that they care about us, we want one thing from you: we want you to boycott Israel. That is the one thing that will hold Israel accountable for its crimes against international law, and to get us justice — more BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) actions. This is the only way to deal with apartheid. It worked in South Africa, and it will work for Israel.
We have lives we need to live. We don’t want to die because of the Coronavirus. We are human like you, and we’re not asking for too much. We’re asking you to be human too.”
Israel is taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to take more Palestinian land, but the Palestinians will resist
by Yara Hawari
Forty-four years ago today, the Israeli police shot six Palestinian citizens of Israel dead as they were protesting against the Israeli government’s expropriation of thousands of acres of Palestinian land in the Galilee. Since then, March 30 has been known as Land Day and is an important date in the Palestinian political calendar.
This year, Palestinians will be marking Land Day at home amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left much of the world’s populations under lockdown and curfew. Being confined to their homes or their villages and towns is not a new experience for Palestinians which is perhaps why so many have taken it in their stride.
Indeed, Palestinians in the West Bank are confined to what amounts to bantustans connected to each other only by roads controlled by the Israeli regime, while their brothers and sisters in Gaza live in an open-air prison deemed “unliveable” by the United Nations. Most Palestinians living across the “Green Line” have Israeli citizenship, they nevertheless live in urban and rural ghettos.
Palestinians are also disconnected from their Arab brothers and sisters with many of them prevented from travelling around the Arab world, either because their documents do not permit them to do so (in the case of Palestinians with Israeli citizenship) or because they are under travel bans.
As part of the COVID-19 response, the Israeli regime has imposed even more measures restricting Palestinian movement. The city of Bethlehem has been put under lockdown, while crossings into Gaza and the West Bank have been shut down. Palestinian labourers working in Israel have also been told to either stay for an unknown period of time in shoddy and unsanitary accommodation or give up work and stay in the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority has imposed a curfew and set up checkpoints between villages and towns to limit the movement of people. Businesses have been shut down, except for supermarkets and pharmacies.
Meanwhile, Israel is continuing its practices of removing Palestinians from their land, even exploiting the lockdown amid the pandemic to do so. In Jerusalem, where there is a concerted effort to Judaise neighbourhoods and reduce the number of Palestinian inhabitants, the demolitions of Palestinian homes continue, despite the outbreak. The Israeli regime claims these buildings are illegal in order to justify demolishing them, yet Palestinians are consistently denied building permits.
Demolitions are also used as a method of collective punishment of the families of Palestinian political prisoners particularly in the West Bank. In the midst of this pandemic, this continuing cruel practice renders calls by Israeli authorities to “stay at home” absurd.
Similarly the construction of illegal settlements across the West Bank has not halted and there are fears that de jure annexation of many areas will be expediated under these circumstances, particularly as Benjamin Netanyahu is once again set to lead the next government.
Already, last week there were three cases in which illegal Israeli settlements razed Palestinian land and there has been an overall rise in attacks against Palestinian properties.
Earlier this month, Palestinians from Beita village near Nablus held a sit-in to try and protect land from being stolen by settlers. The Israeli security forces came out in full force to give cover to the settlers and in the process shot 15-year-old Mohammed Hammayel in the head killing him instantly.
Many in historic Palestine are worried that Israel will use the COVID-19 outbreak as an excuse to leave in place new restrictive measures even after the pandemic is over and will also prevent Palestinians from resisting its land grabs. At a time when the world is focused solely on the pandemic and the Israeli regime has the full support of the US administration to do as it pleases, Israeli aggressive expansionism seems inevitable.
Yet over the decades, Palestinians have shown incredible strength, courage and sumud (steadfastness) in the face of great adversity. While Israeli settler colonial expansionism does not rest, neither does Palestinian perseverance. As the Palestinian poet Tawfiq Ziyad wrote:
In Lidda, in Ramla, in the Galilee, we shall remain like a wall upon your chest, and in your throat like a shard of glass, a cactus thorn, and in your eyes a sandstorm.
Israel’s military control of Gaza and the West Bank has only grown more brutal during the pandemic. Workers are held in quarantine, prisoners have been infected, and Israel is withholding money that could be used to help contain the outbreak.
By Taya Graham
Israeli Journalist Gideon Levy says that as more and more communities face movement restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus, maybe they will get a taste of what Palestinians experience every day living under Israeli military occupation.
But for Palestinians, living under restrictions day to day hasn’t made it easier to cope with the new, intensified measures to contain COVID-19. Instead, Palestinians are realizing that the combination of occupation and coronavirus is torturous.
The Gaza Strip’s heavily controlled border offered some protection from the virus until recently. But the first cases of COVID-19 have been diagnosed in the besieged Gaza Strip, and doctors warn of a humanitarian catastrophe in a small dense area lacking in medicine and health facilities.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) asked the Israeli government to release 11.5 million dollars which the Israeli government has been withholding. Back in February 2019 the Israeli government started to deduct money the Palestinian Authority gives to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails from the taxes that it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. These prisoners do not receive sufficient food and the PA must support them, thereby subsidizing the Israeli occupation, and removing money from the Authority’s budget.
The PA is now appealing to Israel to release those funds in order to help them deal with the spread of COVID-19, offer treatment to people who become sick, and establish effective quarantine areas. It is, of course, also in the interest of Israel that the Palestinian Authority contain the virus effectively, but the Israeli government refused and continues to hold on to the stolen money.
Abdul Nasser Soboh, the Gaza director of the World Health Organization (WHO), warned about how lack of resources could exacerbate the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government doesn’t want the coronavirus outbreak to undermine its efforts to deal with its own housing shortage. Businesses are closed all over Israel, but not construction sites, where workers must still show up to work despite the risk of infection and keep on building houses. Most construction workers on those sites are Palestinians coming from the West Bank.
Fearing that workers traveling between the West Bank and Israel will accelerate the spread of the disease, Israeli Minister of Defense, Naftali Bennet ordered that Palestinian workers must remain in Israel for at least two weeks and be separated from their families and their social circles if they want to keep their jobs. This creates a serious dilemma for workers: should they take on a dangerous job at low pay to help provide for their family who they will not even be allowed to see?
Construction worker, Ibrahim Abu Safiya had trouble breathing, so his Israeli employer suspected that he was infected with COVID-19. He was physically thrown out of Israel through the checkpoint and left feverish on the ground without medical help or someone to accompany him. He eventually tested negative for COVID-19.
Palestinian Prime Minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh made this public announcement:
“All citizens who return from abroad should be in quarantine for 14 days in centres in their cities. Fifth, banks will work in emergency an situation, bank employees should show their work cards. Sixth, Palestinian workers are not allowed to go to settlements at all. Seventh, we request Israel to provide human conditions for workers who sleep in their work places (in Israel).”
There are still over five thousand Palestinians held as political prisoners in Israeli jails. Four have recently reported symptoms of infection, and the Israeli secret police interrogator who questioned them was diagnosed with the coronavirus. Under these conditions, all Palestinian prisoners are at a very high risk of the disease. Sahar Francis, director of the Addameer Palestinian prisoners right’s organization, spoke to the Real News.
Palestinians are trapped between the pandemic and Israel’s brutal military occupation
By Fareed Taamallah
The global spread of coronavirus has necessitated movement restrictions around the world, including in Israel and Palestine.
As the occupying state, Israel controls all entrances to and exits from the occupied West Bank and Gaza. Last week, it closed off Palestinian-administered areas under the pretext of “limiting the spread” of coronavirus. Bethlehem has been fully locked down for weeks.
It is clear to Palestinians that Israel is taking advantage of Covid-19, exploiting the West Bank lockdown to accelerate the annexation of Palestinian land, while allowing Israeli settlers to attack Palestinian civilians – further complicating Palestinian efforts to combat the pandemic.
The Israeli army is using the pretext of coronavirus to impose further closures and movement restrictions on Palestinians. This ought to be a matter of public health, and the restrictions should apply equally to Israelis, as anyone can get infected – but the Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, who live just a few hundred metres from the locked-down Palestinian communities, are not facing the same restrictions.
Israelis apparently believe they can take advantage of the current situation to implement the US “deal of the century”. Israel’s imposition of restrictions on movement in bantustan-like Palestinian areas is an early warning of how things would work if US President Donald Trump’s deal were to be implemented.
For me, as a Palestinian born and raised under the Israeli occupation, the new ban on movement brings back memories of the curfews and siege imposed by the Israeli occupation on the Palestinian territories, especially during the Second Intifada, under the pretext of security.
During that time, the Israeli army locked down Palestinian communities and turned our lives into an unbearable nightmare, subject to severe repression.
In 2002, in my hometown of Qira in the northern West Bank, my newborn daughter Lina got a viral infection that caused severe diarrhea and fever for several days – but we couldn’t take her to a hospital or doctor, due to the Israeli-imposed curfew.
A year later, we discovered that this untreated infection had caused chronic kidney failure, and a kidney transplant was needed to save her life. The current restrictions could similarly cause serious problems for chronically ill Palestinians, including my daughter.
So far, more cases of coronavirus have been reported in Israel than in the West Bank. More than 2,500 cases have been recorded in Israel, compared with fewer than 100 in the Palestinian territories. Yet, despite the unprecedented health crisis and widespread social isolation measures, Israeli police “have chosen now, of all times, to escalate their abuse and collective punishment” of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, according to the human rights group B’Tselem.
The level of violence perpetrated by Jewish settlers has simultaneously increased, with reports citing a campaign of attacks against Palestinian shepherds and farmers. In the Bethlehem area, where Palestinians live under strict quarantine, settlers recently uprooted hundreds of trees belonging to Palestinians.
The Israeli army also recently allowed Jewish settlers into an archaeological site in the village of Sebastia in the northern West Bank, despite a Palestinian Authority decision to close down tourist sites and ban gatherings in an effort to fight the coronavirus outbreak.
In the meantime, Israel has started building roads for settlers near my home village south of Nablus – a clear attempt to define bantustans and ghettos for Palestinians. The settlers, under the protection of the Israeli occupation army, do not miss an opportunity to cause more suffering to the Palestinian people, using various pretexts and excuses.
In Gaza, which has registered just a handful of cases of coronavirus, there are serious concerns over the capacity of the healthcare system, which was already in crisis due to the Israeli-imposed blockade.
Dirty and overcrowded prisons
Israeli authorities recently reported that four Palestinian prisoners had been infected with coronavirus in an Israeli prison, after contact with an Israeli investigator who had Covid-19.
More than 5,000 Palestinians, including women and children, are currently being held in Israeli prisons, which are notoriously old, dirty, overcrowded, and lacking in basic hygiene supplies. If Israel cares about prisoners’ safety, it should release them.
In 1991, during the First Intifada, I was arrested by the Israeli army at the age of 17. Investigators tortured me for 39 days, using all means of physical and psychological torture. I witnessed firsthand the solitary confinement conditions in a very tiny, dirty cell without windows; my health was neglected.
Palestinians today are trapped and fighting on two fronts: one against the pandemic, and the other against Israel’s brutal military occupation.
Yet one positive outcome of the recent lockdown is that it may draw attention to the daily movement restrictions that are omnipresent in Palestinians’ lives, but which most of the world doesn’t care about, or even know to exists.
Hamas official Khalil al-Hayya (R) holds a press conference over the precautions against coronavirus (Covid-19) in Gaza City, Gaza on 14 March 2020
By Dr Adnan Abu Amer
Once the first infections with the coronavirus were announced in the Gaza Strip, Hamas showed intense political engagement by making contacts with several countries to provide aid to the strip. The movement’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, contacted the emir of Qatar, the Turkish president and the Iranian foreign minister, while he called on the king of Saudi Arabia to release Hamas’ detainees in the kingdom’s prisons for fear of contracting the virus.
Immediately after this announcement was made, Haniyeh started working on developing high-level contacts with some of the leaders of the region, requesting humanitarian assistance to Palestinians inside and outside of Gaza.
Haniyeh announced in a press statement the allocation of half a million dollars to support the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon to face the pandemic, then contacted the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to show solidarity with the Iranian people who are suffering from an intense outbreak of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the movement’s leader called on Iran to provide the Palestinian people with the necessary medical materials to confront the spread of the virus.
Later, Haniyeh called for King Salman Bin Abdulaziz to release Hamas detainees, held in the kingdom’s prisons since April 2019, over health concerns following the propagation of the pandemic; though no link has been established between Haniyeh’s request from Saudi Arabia and the detection of two cases of infection with the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip.
Haniyeh confirmed in a statement that the two leaders expressed their willingness to help the Palestinian people to face the spread of the virus, by pumping the necessary funds and resources, even though the content of the two phone conversations was announced from the movement’s part only – i.e. neither the Qatari ruler nor the Turkish president issued official statements about the discussions they had with the Palestinian official.
Hamas spokespersons emphasised that since the detection of the first infections with the virus in Gaza, Hamas has moved to combat the spread of COVID-19 out of a high sense of national responsibility, and the movement’s wide presence in the Palestinian streets. Hamas has helped the government agencies in the Gaza Strip to equip the locations where the infected people will be quarantined, in addition to undertaking the political and diplomatic initiative to communicate with Qatar, Turkey, Iran and Egypt in order to ensure the continuity of bilateral trade movement with Gaza to avoid a food crisis. On the other hand, the movement has also requested from Saudi Arabia to release the Palestinian detainees, including the sick and the elderly, while the PA is falling short of helping Gaza, even with the spread of the pandemic.
Immediately after Hamas started contacting the aforementioned countries, the Qatar News Agency announced that Qatar provided $150 million to support the Gaza Strip to combat the pandemic, over a period of six months, to help alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. Thus, Haniyeh thanked the emir of Qatar, considering this financial aid as an extension of the long-standing Qatari position toward the Palestinians.
The Qatari ambassador to the Palestinian territories, Mohammed Al-Emadi, who heads the Qatari Committee for Reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, also started providing assistance to hundreds of Palestinians in the quarantine centres in the strip, including the distribution of meals, electrical appliances, blankets, pillows and mattresses, as well as securing the necessary quantities of fuel to provide electricity to the centres, in cooperation with the ministries of social development and health in Gaza.
The Hamas-managed ministries in the strip, and not the movement itself, have sought through recent contacts to support the medical capabilities in Gaza, as it has conducted direct coordination with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the PA, especially the ministries of health and social development. Nonetheless, these government bodies, which have established indirect coordination with Israel to receive the necessary requirements to confront the virus, succeeded in providing laboratory testing equipment, sterilisation supplies and medical devices.
By pumping funds to help Gaza confront COVID-19, Qatar has chosen the only available option to cooperate with Hamas, within the limits of what is permitted by Israel and internationally. Since Israel is concerned about the outbreak of the epidemic in Gaza, it will not allow the situation to deteriorate there, and therefore the occupation authorities will facilitate the provision of preventive measures to aid the strip confront the spread of the virus.
While the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip revealed that the medical teams provided 1,420 hosts in the quarantine centres with necessary medical care, the health system in Gaza is struggling amid the shortage of 39 per cent of basic medications, 23 per cent of medical materials, and 60 per cent of laboratory supplies and blood banks, in addition to the severe lack of virus test kits.
Admittedly, Gaza’s Ministry of Health has revealed only several individual cases of the coronavirus so far. However, the increasing number of people in quarantine comes due to fear of being infected through existing cases, whether from the two people who have been examined, or from Palestinian travellers returning from abroad through the Rafah crossing, in the south with Egypt, and the Beit Hanoun (Erez) border crossing.
The promises to help in fighting the coronavirus that the government entities in Gaza received from some countries, have not yet been fulfilled. Government entities are making efforts along with international bodies to purchase the necessary equipment to limit the spread of the pandemic, especially respirators, implantable cardioverter defibrillators and intensive care units.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza has a severe shortage of these materials, and it needs 100 respirators, costing $30,000 each, but the problem is that these devices are decreasing globally due to the high demand for them. As for the PA, it does not coordinate with the ministry, and Gaza did not receive anything from all the aid and grants that the PA received to deal with the pandemic.
Hamas announced that Turkey is prepared to provide Gaza with medical assistance to confront COVID-19, especially the opening of the Turkish-Palestinian Al-Sadaka Hospital in Gaza, which began construction in 2011, and was completed in 2017 but has not yet been opened, with no reason given. However, the Islamic University of Gaza announced hours earlier that it has been allowed to use the hospital in cases of emergency due to the coronavirus. The hospital, with all its capabilities and equipment, will be placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Health in Gaza, as it possesses high-level capabilities and equipment.
The Turkish hospital in Gaza can accommodate two hundred beds, and it consists of several buildings. It is equipped with the latest devices, appropriate medical mattresses and the best equipment for the different types of radiology departments, operating room facilities, intensive care and various other forms of equipment.
Hamas clearly wants to use its foreign relations to provide humanitarian and health assistance to confront the coronavirus in Gaza, especially with its friends Iran, Turkey and Qatar, and to provide financial support for the relief of Palestinians who have been economically affected by the pandemic. Qatar and Turkey responded to Hamas’ humanitarian and health demands to confront COVID-19 in Gaza. As for Iran, Hamas obviously understands its worsening crisis due to the spread of the pandemic in the country.
Regarding its detainees in Saudi prisons, Hamas fears that the coronavirus pandemic will reach them, and it may have wanted to play on the emotional tendencies, influence the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and ask some mediators to convince it to release them.
Later, the leader of the Houthis in Yemen, Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, announced his willingness to release a Saudi captive pilot with four officers and soldiers, in exchange for Hamas detainees. Hamas has issued an important statement on this initiative, and confirmed its follow-up with interest, appreciating the spirit of fraternity and sympathy for the Palestinian people, and supporting its resistance. It also expressed its thanks for this interest and initiative, reiterating its continuous demand to Saudi Arabia of the urgent need to release all Palestinian detainees from the kingdom’s prisons.
The emergence of the coronavirus in Gaza came at a time when Haniyeh was outside of it, which gave Hamas a wide margin to move along with other countries, especially with its efforts to employ its political relations to support the humanitarian and health sectors. The spread of the coronavirus in many countries across the globe is unfavourable to Hamas, because it has problems that distract it from supporting Gaza.
Although the PA opposes Turkish, Iranian and Qatari relations with Hamas, it may turn a blind eye to them, especially at this stage, because these countries may help Gaza, and absolve the PA of its humanitarian and health responsibilities towards the strip which fears the spread of the coronavirus, especially as Hamas accuses the PA of ignoring Gaza.
Israeli occupation blocked Palestinian workers at their workplaces to serve Israeli community. When Palestinian worker admitted to hospital over normal flu, Israeli police kidnapped him and dropped him off Israeli military checkpoint in West Bank
By Motasem A Dalloul
Israeli occupation excludes Palestinians from the safety measures take against the spread of the coronavirus. Israel protected Israeli prisoners and rejected to take same measures for Palestinian prisoners.
The coronavirus Covid-19 has spread around the world, with 615,757 confirmed cases and 28,231 deaths according to an updating dashboard run by the World Health Organisation. The Director-General of the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has said that it is “deeply concerned both by the alarming levels of spread and severity” of the virus.
This severity has pushed many countries to put hostilities aside and work together against the virus. Strict measures have been imposed to curb its spread and protect humanity: large gatherings have been banned; schools and universities have been closed; congregational prayers in places of worship have been suspended; and some countries have even released prisoners.
In Israel, however, the response to the virus has simply emphasised its officially-sanctioned racism. For example, on 20 March, the Times of Israel reported that Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan had decided to release 500 Israeli prisoners into house arrest in an effort to reduce the risk of a coronavirus outbreak in the country’s prisons.
Erdan apparently accepted the recommendation of acting Israel Prison Service chief Asher Vaknin.
Not a single one of the 5,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel — including 180 children, 43 women and 430 detained with neither charge nor trial —is being released, though, not even those with critical health conditions.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club (PPC), at least four Palestinian prisoners held by Israel has tested positive for coronavirus. However, the Israeli occupation authorities deny this. The PPC pointed to the restrictions imposed by Israel on reporting news from its prisons, so it is in any case unlikely to make such an admission.
Rights group Addameer noted that the Israel Prison Service has banned visits to Palestinian prisoners by family members and lawyers since the outbreak of the virus instead of providing them with hygiene and cleaning materials essential to curb its spread. No other measures appear to have been implemented to protect the prisoners.
“Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons and detention centres constantly suffer from clear medical negligence,” explained Addameer. The situation has not changed since the outbreak of the virus. “Despite the fact that prisons are overcrowded and rooms, cells and sections are small, and lack proper ventilation, the IPS is yet to make clear preventive procedures… The prisons lack sterilisers, cleaning materials, and medications such as antibiotics and necessary nutrition.”
Last Thursday, the Palestinian prisoners threatened to launch a hunger strike if measures to protect them against the virus are not implemented. The occupation authorities did nothing for them, prompting them to begin gradual protest action.
The second evidence of Israel’s inherent racism is the inhumane treatment of a Palestinian worker who was thought by Israelis to have contracted coronavirus when he came down with flu-like symptoms. A video on social media showed him being dumped at Israel’s Sira/Maccabim military checkpoint near the occupied West Bank city of Nablus.
The man spoke to Palestinian and Israeli journalists about the incident. He explained that he had suffered from fever and his condition developed to a normal flu. His employer took him to Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, where he was tested for the coronavirus, but before the result was known, police officers arrived, handcuffed him and took him to the checkpoint where he was dumped; he then collapsed.
While the occupation authorities ordered Israeli employees to stay at home, they decided to block thousands of Palestinian workers in their work places regardless of the measures being taken against the spread of the coronavirus. When a Palestinian worker was thought to have contracted the virus, the Israelis dealt with him with neither compassion nor mercy. Such words are not in Israeli vocabulary when it comes to dealing with Palestinians.
Other incidents have occurred over the past few weeks, but these two suffice to illustrate Israeli racism.
To conclude, take note of the words of UN Special Rapporteur for the situation of human rights in Palestine, Michael Lynk, who voiced his concerns about Israel’s racism when he observed that the official Israeli publications to increase awareness about the disease were issued “exclusively in Hebrew”.
“This serious imbalance is apparently being addressed after protests, but it highlights the importance of ensuring equality of treatment,” stressed Lynk. “The legal duty, anchored in Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, requires that Israel, the occupying power, must ensure that all the necessary preventive means available to it are utilised to ‘combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.’”
Yet again, and to the surprise of nobody, least of all the Palestinians, the Israelis are simply ignoring international laws and conventions. And, as usual, the effects could be deadly for the people of occupied Palestine.
It was around 11 am when people at the Beit Sira checkpoint, near Nablus, began to gather around the 29-year-old Malik Ghanem. Coughing, with fever and unable to stand, the young Palestinian was left there by the occupation police, who had brought him all the way from his workplace in Tel Aviv. “I got very tired, earlier at work” recalls Ghanem, “my Israelí employer refused to take me to the hospital, so I had to pay 400 shekels for an ambulance. After a quick check at the entrance, I was taken by the police to the checkpoint”.
Ghanem was suspected to be infected with COVID-19, so the occupation authorities suspended his work permit. “The occupation police officers told me, as they pushed me away from their vehicle at the checkpoint, that there was no place for me in any quarantine center in Israel”, tells Ghanem, who was later found not to be infected by a coronavirus, but rather having regular flu that augmented his chronic suffering of a liver problem.
The face of a crippled statehood
In the last weeks, Palestine has unusually made it to the media reports as an independent country, but not for the right reasons. In the midst of the world’s attention turned to the spread of coronavirus, Palestine has been identified for the number of infection cases in the Palestinian Authority territories (84 at the moment of writing this article). Palestine has also been reported in various media outlets as having taken strict measures against the pandemic. The director of the local WHO office, Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, even congratulated the Palestinian government, in a public video, for its performance in facing the spread of the new disease. However, this coverage of Palestine through the coronavirus crisis hides a reality that looks very different.
The Palestinian government has ordered to close shops, suspend all classes and limited movement out of the country through the bridge crossing point to Jordan, the only exit for Palestinians in the West Bank. Eventually, it even decreed a general curfew last Sunday, in all Palestinian cities. The first curfew in all of Palestine’s history not to be imposed by an occupation authority.
However, despite all these measures and all this display of the characteristics of a state in action, the Palestinian government doesn’t have the means to face the crisis independently from the occupation state. Palestine has no control over its own borders, neither it does over movement between its cities and towns, or even over the capacities of its own health system. The Israelí occupation does.
The case of Malk Ghanem sheds light on one of the most obvious aspects of this dependency. Like Ghanbem, over 200.000 Palestinian workers, cross daily to the other of the green line and back. Like him they are all vulnerable to infection and like him, they are completely unprotected and exposed to be left at a checkpoint, without providing necessary care.
Muhannad Mansour, 26 years old, is one of them. Mansour and his mother work at an Israeli restaurant in Western Jerusalem as kitchen staff; “We are paid per hour” he explains, “when we don’t show up, we’re not paid”.
Until last week, Mansour went regularly to his work in Jerusalem. Then, after the coronavirus disease started spreading among Israelis, the occupation authorities limited work permits only to workers under 50 years old. Eventually, the occupation authorities made it compulsory for those who do cross into the 1948 territories to stay and sleep at their workplace. Only then, did Mansour and his mother stop going to work. “We have to take care of my younger siblings and I have another job in Ramallah. Sleeping at work is just not a choice”.
But for many others, it is the only choice. Mansour’s uncle, Jeries Kawaneh, works as a guard in a hotel in East Jerusalem, which is also isolated from the West Bank. He, on the other hand, preferred to stay at work indefinitely. His wife Hunaida says that “his work in Jerusalem is our only source of income. This is why he regularly stays for several days there. The difference now is that we don’t know when he is going to be able to come home”.
Nasser Damaj, spokesperson of the General Union of Palestine’s Workers explains that “there is simply no possible way to examine every single worker”. Damaj clarifies that “the Palestinian authority can not ask the workers not to go to work across the green line, because most of them have no alternative”. In fact, the first Palestinian to die from coronavirus, last Thursday. Was a woman in her fifties who got the virus from her son, who got it while working on the other side of the green line. As Damaj puts it “The structural dependency of the Palestinian economy makes this particular phenomenon inevitable. It is a small reflection of a larger reality; The occupation makes Palestine in general vulnerable and at the mercy of Israelí measures”.
This vulnerability is complemented by the occupation’s segregation regime. For instance, Jeries Kawaneh, who has been sleeping at his workplace, has been examined once by the Israeli health authorities, who have conducted general checkings on workplaces and was found not to be infected. But in case he was infected, he would have suffered the same fate as Malik Ghanem, being left at some checkpoint without any medical care.
This is because Kawaneh and Ghanem, just like all the Palestinian workers inside the green line, are not covered by the Israelí health insurance, unlike Israelí workers. If they are transferred to an Israelí hospital, they would have to pay for their treatment, unless their employer does, which is totally optional.
Damaj highlights that “Israelí workers all contribute with a percentage of their salaries to a health fund, from which Palestinian workers can not benefit”. This makes hiring Palestinians altogether less expensive and less risky. According to Damaj, “A Palestinian worker receives, on average, 30% of what an Israeli worker is paid”. Despite these conditions, for many Palestinian workers, taking the risk of working inside the green line is the only way of making a living for their families. “We fear that some workers would prefer not to report themselves to the Palestinian health authorities, if they feel sick, by fear of losing their jobs across the green line”, points out Nasser Damaj.
In normal times, when a Palestinian in an Israeli working place needs emergency treatment, or when any Palestinian needs advanced medical treatment, unavailable in Palestinian hospitals, the Palestinian health ministry would request a transfer to Israelí hospitals. This means that the occupation army would issue a special passing permit for the patient and the Palestinian health insurance would have to pay the Israeli hospital.
Dr, Nabil Zawahra from the Palestinian health ministry explains that “such transfers are impossible currently because the Israeli health system is focused on facing the coronavirus spread among Israelis, which has exceeded 1900 cases. There is no possible way they will make room for Palestinian patients”.
Dr. Zawahrah points out, however, that for several months, the Palestinian government has been prioritizing to make medical transfers to Jordan and reduce dependency on the Israelí system”. But even in that case, the patient needs approval from the occupation authorities, who control borders, to travel for treatment.
From a wider perspective, Palestinians who live in the West Bank have fewer chances of staying protected from COVID-19 infection, especially if they depend economically on working inside the green line. They have less chances of receiving proper medical care, especially if they show symptoms while being in an Israeli workplace. Finally, if they are properly diagnosed and hospitalized within the Palestinian health system, but their conditions deteriorate to the point they need to be transferred out of Palestine for treatment, they still depend on Israelí permission.
This was the darkest face of the coronavirus crisis in Palestine, until the first nine cases of infection were confirmed, last week, in the Gaza Strip. Now the disease is threatening to expand among 2 million Palestinians, trapped in one of the most densely populated places on earth, with less than 15 hospitals on their disposal, largely lacking medicine and equipment due to the Israeli blockade and not allowed to leave.
These conditions make an eventual scenario of a generalized epidemic simply catastrophic, which has pushed the Palestinian authority to take drastic measures in order to prevent the spread of the virus. In the view of the initial success of these measures in containing the disease, the Israeli government has released 120 million shekels to the Palestinian authority. It is the Palestinian customs money that Israel has retained for months. This highlights even further the Palestinian dependency on the occupying power, which considers the Palestinian authority to have a role of contention, for the sake of maintaining stability. Never allowing it to grow independent enough to provide its citizens with alternatives to the Israelí health services, Israeli jobs and Israeli control in general.
Palestinian police officers wear masks to protect themselves from coronavirus as they stand guard in Bethlehem, West Bank on 5 March 2020
By Professor Kamel Hawwash
The US and Israel, as well as its supporters, seek to deny the Palestinians their rights to freedom, justice and equality by claiming that the people are not ready for statehood; that they have not as yet built their institutions that would allow them to govern themselves. However, in the face of the current coronavirus pandemic, the Palestinian institutions have proven themselves to be capable of dealing with a crisis that many developed countries have failed to face up to.
At the time of writing, there had been no deaths in the Palestinian areas and the number of people infected with the virus stood at 59, with 17 having recovered. Most of the patients are in Bethlehem, where the first case was discovered. Since the first seven cases were announced on 5 March, the number of confirmed patients rose to 20, all of whom are Palestinian residents of the city in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian Authority moved quickly to place the city under lockdown in an attempt to contain the virus.
Of those 20 cases, 16 were quarantined in the Angel Hotel, along with 15 American tourists who, according to the PA, are believed to have come into contact with those carrying the virus. The Palestinians gave generously to those in quarantine, prompting much gratitude from the Americans isolated with them. “Thank you to all of the Palestinian community of Beit Jala for the love and kindness that you have shown we Americans during our stay at the Angel Hotel!” wrote one alongside a photo of a fried chicken meal from a popular local restaurant.
Gaza had thus far escaped the pandemic while fears were raised that should the virus cross into the enclave, either from Israel or Egypt, then the health sector would not be able to cope. Two Palestinians were tested recently, though, and found to have the virus. They had returned from a trip to Pakistan and were immediately placed in quarantine upon entry at the Rafah Crossing, reducing fears that they could spread the virus to others in the overcrowded, besieged Strip.
Across the nominal border, Israel had 1,238 cases and one death. In his most recent move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a one-week lockdown in the country. The exceptions were pharmacies, grocery stores and petrol stations.
There has been no clear announcement of any cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians to control the spread of the virus, although the Jerusalem Post reported that a joint committee had been established. The PA then announced that Palestinian labourers working in Israel would have to spend one month on the Israeli side before returning rather than make the journey twice daily. This would require their employers to provide them with accommodation and food.
However, images of a Palestinian worker with a high temperature who the Israeli authorities literally dumped at a checkpoint near Nablus have highlighted the value that Israel places on Palestinian lives.
Concerns have grown about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The PA has no access to them and cannot check on their well-being in the current crisis. Last week, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society NGO said that prison canteens have stopped supplying detainees with 140 items, including hygiene and cleaning products, a necessity with the coronavirus spreading around the world and personal cleanliness being paramount. The prison authorities have also cancelled medical check-ups for prisoners, except for those with a fever.
According to Qadri Abu Bakr, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, “The prison service still refuses to offer any protection or disinfection supplies to protect prisoners from coronavirus.”
The PA is also somewhat helpless to deal with the virus in occupied East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hold Jerusalem ID cards and pay taxes for services that should be provided by Israel. The occupying power has continued to raid Al-Esawiyya neighbourhood despite the virus outbreak but has also tried to isolate areas of East Jerusalem that have been placed outside the city by the Apartheid Wall. Their most recent attempt was carried out via the closure of the checkpoint into and out of Shufa’at refugee camp. The other areas of East Jerusalem within Jerusalem’s municipal boundary but on the “wrong” side of the wall are the areas of Kufr Akkab and Qalandia. Israel is again trying to restrict entry from these areas despite the residents carrying Jerusalem ID cards. Moreover, the PA has not been able to make its own decisions about exit and entry points from Egypt and Jordan as Israel has the last say in these matters.
When it comes to communication, both with the Palestinian public and beyond, the PA holds daily press briefings that are normally delivered by the government’s official spokesman, Ibrahim Milhem. The briefings have been statesmanlike, providing a daily update on statistics related to the coronavirus outbreak and allowing journalists to question the PA’s approach. This has been a marked improvement in delivering the authority’s message at a crucial time.
Around the world, PLO missions have tried to keep in touch with Palestinians living abroad so as, at the very least, provide an address that Palestinians in difficulty can turn to. The PLO’s Head of Mission in London issued statements clarifying the situation when Palestinians in the Diaspora have contracted the virus and reporting on their condition.
Building Palestinian institutions for future statehood was a major objective of the Middle East Quartet when it was established and driven by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He worked particularly effectively to build these when PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was in post.
While the PA’s recent dealing with the coronavirus has been impressive, it has been hampered by the Israeli occupation as it has not been able to make decisions that affect the lives of Palestinians under Israel’s control, including those in East Jerusalem and in prison. It has demonstrated that the Palestinian institutions are more than capable of functioning independently, as they would in an independent state. The simple truth of the matter is that the US and Israel, as well as its supporters, just want the PA to absolve Israel of responsibility for the occupation by acting as its public face when it comes to security and dealing with crises, but never to be sufficiently ready for statehood because that would embolden those who want to give official recognition to the State of Palestine.