Palestinians face two enemies: Occupation and pandemic

Palestinians stage a sit-in on March 20 demanding the release of Palestinian prisoners, amid fears they might contract COVID-19 in Israeli prisons under a deliberate policy of medical negligence. Photo: Palestinian Mission to the UK/Twitter.

Despite the global pandemic, it is business as usual for the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 has risen to almost 4700 in Israel, approximately 106 in the occupied West Bank and 10 in the besieged Gaza Strip.

The illness has claimed the lives of 16 Israelis so far, and one Palestinian woman in the occupied West Bank. [Ed - figures updated as at March 31]

While the coronavirus sickens more people, Palestinians simultaneously face an older enemy: Israeli military occupation.

Besieged and densely populated Gaza is in particular danger from a widespread epidemic.

“Israel will not be able to deflect the blame if this nightmare scenario turns into a reality that it created and made no effort to prevent,” the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem warned this week.

Physical distancing, staying home and maintaining hygiene are precautions Palestinians are struggling to take as Israel continues to demolish structures, conduct night raids, arbitrarily arrest children and routinely harass civilians.

Seizing structures for field clinic

Israeli forces demolished and seized structures meant for a field clinic and emergency housing in Ibziq, a village in the northern Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank, on March 26.

This was done under the supervision of the Civil Administration, the bureaucratic arm of Israel’s military occupation.

Israeli forces confiscated tents, a generator and building supplies.

“Shutting down a first-aid community initiative during a health crisis is an especially cruel example of the regular abuse inflicted on these communities,” Israeli human rights group B'Tselem stated.

According to village council chief Abdul Majid Khdeirat, this was done on the pretext that the construction was in a closed military zone.

Israel habitually declares occupied West Bank land to be firing or military zones then later seizes the land for illegal Israeli settlements.

Israeli forces also demolished the homes of three Palestinian families in al-Duyuk village, near Jericho.

An Israeli military bulldozer destroyed the homes of Muayad Abu Obaida, Thaer al-Sharif and Yasir Alayan, because they were built without permits, which Israel almost never grants to Palestinians. This leaves them no choice but to build homes without the occupier’s permission.

All three farmers are residents of Jerusalem.

Isolating tens of thousands

Meanwhile, Israel is considering sealing off several neighbourhoods of occupied East Jerusalem, isolating tens of thousands of Palestinians from the rest of the city.

Almost 70% of the 100,000 people in Shuafat refugee camp have Israeli residency cards allowing them to enter Jerusalem.

“In the event of a closure, these residents will be entirely disconnected from their city upon which they rely for all basic services, and it will likely lead to widespread panic and unrest,” warns Ir Amim, an Israeli group working towards equality in Jerusalem.

“Such a measure would be one step further in realising longstanding Israeli plans to redraw Jerusalem’s municipal boundaries to formally disconnect these neighbourhoods from Jerusalem.”

Israel would be using coronavirus as a pretext to cut off those neighbourhoods from the rest of Jerusalem, despite the number of confirmed cases being dramatically lower in those neighbourhoods compared to Israel.

Most vulnerable in world

Humans rights groups are warning of an impending massive disaster in case of a widespread COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza.

Often referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison, the coastal enclave has been under a tight Israeli siege since 2007. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and sea, and Israel along with Egypt controls its land boundaries.

Gaza is still reeling from three major Israeli military offensives since 2008.

“Gazans [are] amongst the most vulnerable people in the world to the global COVID-19 pandemic,” the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq stated.

The water and sanitation crisis caused by Israel’s prolonged blockade of Gaza undermines “the ability of Palestinians to adequately prevent and mitigate the impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak,” al-Haq added.

Less than 4% of water in the territory is fit for human consumption.

Modern healthcare systems in countries such as Italy and Spain are collapsing under the pressure of the pandemic.

An outbreak of the new coronavirus in Gaza, where the health infrastructure is already on the brink of collapse, would throw it into “a humanitarian disaster — created entirely by Israel,” B’Tselem stated.

Israel habitually delays or denies permits for many Palestinians to receive treatment outside Gaza, granting permission to only a fraction who need medical care.

“Now, even this faint possibility will not exist,” B’Tselem said.

Dr Mona El-Farra, the health chair of the Palestine Red Crescent Society in Gaza, told The Electronic Intifada that there’s a shortage of beds, protective equipment and testing kits.

“We don’t have enough kits, we have up to this minute just around 200 kits for diagnosis. At the moment we have 2,500 people in quarantine. They all need to be tested.”

Qatar pledged $150 million over the next six months to aid United Nations efforts against the coronavirus in Gaza.

While this aid may help in the near term, it also relieves Israel of its responsibility as the occupying power.

No access to emergency services

Adalah, a group that advocates for the rights of Palestinians in Israel, says Palestinian Bedouins in the southern Naqab region have no access to emergency medical services.

Israel’s health ministry bars those with fever and respiratory symptoms from leaving their homes. If their health deteriorates, MDA, the national ambulance service, may recommend an in-home examination or evacuation to the hospital.

The Bedouin villages have no access to the MDA, however.

The group sent a letter to Israeli authorities on Sunday demanding they provide those services to 70,000 Palestinian citizens of Israel living in unrecognised villages.

“Israel has for years maintained a policy of neglect and discrimination when it came to providing routine health services — as well as emergency medical services — to Bedouin citizens of Israel,” Adalah said.

“In light of the coronavirus crisis, this state policy has now resulted in an immediate danger to local residents and the general public alike.”

[Abridged from The Electronic Intifada.]

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