The COVID-19 crisis presented a greater threat to Palestinians than most and, as Sara O’Rourke writes, that threat was worsened by the purposeful actions of an apartheid Israeli state.
In Palestine, it is almost 3 months since places like the West Bank and others entered lock-down. A state of emergency was declared on March 5, and there have been hundreds of confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Gaza braced itself from the outset; a major outbreak in the most densely populated, already locked-in place on earth would be catastrophic on an unimaginable scale.
International law requires that Israel is obligated, as the occupying power, to meet the basic needs of Palestinians living under occupation. That should mean providing Palestinians with the means to protect themselves from COVID-19, as history shows, Israel regularly flouts international law.
This terror, apartheid state has maintained the detention, torture and brutal harassment of Palestinians despite the pandemic. Israel holds approximately 5000 Palestinians in detention centres, including almost 200 minors, and just this week a Palestinian teenager was shot in the head by Israeli soldiers. Tragically this is not an unusual occurrence in this brutal regime.
While the initial outbreak in the West Bank was contained to the city of Bethlehem, it began to spread particularly in rural areas where many residents are employed as laborers in Israel or in Israeli settlements.
Villagers who usually have to deal with home demolitions and other Israeli aggressions had to take their own precautions and in many places set up their own committees and roadblocks to monitor movement in and out of villages.
They began running education programmes on how to social distance in cramped spaces and trying to contain the virus through curfews and other measures. Small numbers of workers from the once vibrant textile industry are back at work making masks for export and there has been an increase in agricultural production for export to Israel. Workers began disinfecting the streets and quarantines centres were set up.
Israeli interference in COVID-19 safety precautions
Outrageously, but unsurprisingly, Israeli soldiers are blocking the efforts of Palestinians to try and control the Corona virus outbreak.
In a report from one village in the West Bank, makeshift checkpoints by villagers to monitor movement and control the spread of the virus were destroyed by Israeli soldiers.
In March, in the mostly rural Jordan valley, Israeli soldiers demolished a field clinic and emergency housing with bulldozers.
Globally, business as usual has come to a standstill as countries try to deal with an unprecedented health crisis, yet Israeli aggression and harassment of Palestinians continues unabated. In the Jordan valley there are home demolitions and settler attacks, in the West Bank there is widespread detention of young teens, and in Gaza, Israel’s actions are contributing to a pre-existing humanitarian disaster they created.
Such has been Israel’s enthusiasm for persecuting Palestinians, that on 13 May, US Secretary of state Mike Pompeo arrived in Jerusalem in a star spangled mask to allegedly suggest the Israelis slow down their annexation of 30% of the West Bank, as now is not the best time – optically that is.
Back in February, before the full impact of COVID-19 was felt, US president Donald Trump unveiled his Peace to Prosperity ‘deal of the century’ for Palestine, including:
- Israel maintaining the vast majority of settlements
- Palestinians losing huge chunks of land, including the entire Jordan Valley, completely cutting off their only independent way out of the West Bank
- Israel’s continued control of crossing in and out of Palestinian areas, and military control over the entire land, sea and air
- Refusing Palestine the right to join any international body without Israel’s permission
- Dropping all cases against Israel and the US in the International Criminal Court before ‘peace’ negotiations can begin
The plan says Palestinians would get “significant territorial expansion” and land “reasonably comparable in size” to what they had in 1967, but this “conceptual map” shows that, in reality, Palestine would be reduced to a few small pockets of territory, transected by Israeli settlements.
Travel between these pockets of land would mean long, complicated routes through narrow corridors of land, or through tunnels or bridges, controlled by the Israeli army. One of these tunnels would connect West Bank land to the Gaza Strip—provided Palestinians are allowed to keep the Gaza Strip.
The global pandemic has not slowed down Israel’s implementation of this plan.
Hot Press magazine published a letter from Amnesty International signed by artists such as Massive Attack, Roger Waters, Brian Eno, Christy Moore, Stephen Rea, Lankum, and others calling for an end to the siege of Gaza during the pandemic and a military embargo on Israel, “until it fully complies with its obligations under international law”:
“Long before the global outbreak of COVID-19 threatened to overwhelm the already devastated healthcare system in Gaza, the UN had predicted that the blockaded coastal strip would be unlivable by 2020. With the pandemic, Gaza’s almost two million inhabitants, predominantly refugees, face a mortal threat in the world’s largest open-air prison. Reports of the first cases of coronavirus in densely-populated Gaza are therefore deeply disturbing.
As several health professionals recently wrote: ‘Epidemics (and indeed, pandemics) are disproportionately violent to populations burdened by poverty, military occupation, discrimination & institutionalised oppression.”
Zak, a Palestinian friend of mine, recently returned to Dublin goes further:
“I think people in Gaza are afraid of the Covid 19 virus, like any person in this world. But people in Gaza are more frightened because they know they don’t have the equipment or facilities to fight the virus and cope with it.
The least you can say about the system in Gaza is that it is “fragile”. Lack of funding for hospitals, poor condition of equipment when it is there, and a shortage of basic medical kits that would be used daily in any hospital. There is a shortage in every basic aspect of the health system. That’s why people are frightened and a lot of NGOs warned of a disaster if the virus spread.”
What would make things worse is that the strip is very populated and people are on top of each other. Social distancing is impossible to implement so in a very short time the virus could spread all over”.
With a population of 2 million, Gaza is about the same size as County Louth with almost 15 times the population. 75% of people in Gaza have no steady income because industry and infrastructure in the strip has been decimated by Israeli bombings. The restrictions on the movement of peoples, goods and medicines has led to an acute scarcity of essential drugs, basic medical equipment and specialised health professionals.
There are only 78 intensive care beds for a population of 2 million.
In April, Gaza ran out of testing kits and the Israeli military ordered that there should be no more testing in Gaza.
The Israeli state, by ensuring the unhindered spread of the virus through destroying safety measures and banning tests, have attempted to fan the flames of the deadly impact of this virus. Who in their right minds wouldn’t liken this to an attempted massacre.
I have always hated the expression that ‘we are all in this together’. While it is true that this virus recognises no barriers, it is also true that some are in a much better position to protect themselves than others.
We may all face the same storm, but we are in different vessels – some are in luxury mega yachts and some are in canoes which the Israeli state have shot holes in.
Support from the international community has included aid from the Irish Government, and while such aid is very necessary it is not a long-term solution. The people of Palestine inspire us all with their resilience and resourcefulness, and what they really need is independence and freedom from the tyranny of the Israeli military regime.
The International community must put pressure on Israel to lift the blockade which is too polite a word for the reality on the ground. The reality is that Israel is maintaining the largest concentration camp in human history by the continued imprisonment of Gaza.
We must listen to what Palestinians call for. Talk of delivering human rights, with the West painted as some benevolent force should serve as a reminder that those rights can only again be stripped away.
What Palestinians want is an end to the illegal occupation of their lands, an end to the violent military oppression which shoots teenagers dead, imprisons children, destroys ancient olive trees and industry, and maintains an apartheid system of brutality. They want to be the overseer of their own rights.
They want more than anything the right of return for millions of Palestinians still displaced around the world, many living as refugees in camps in Palestine, in Jordan, in Syria and in Lebanon.
Let us all as individuals and communities who stand in international solidarity with Palestinians get on with boycotting Israeli goods and divest, a call that has come from Palestinian civil society. Let us never cease the international fight for a one state solution – democratic state where people – Muslim, Jewish and Christian live side by side like any recogniseable secular democracy. It is not too great a demand.