• Robyn Mills

COVID-19 and the Human Rights Crisis in Gaza

Source: Arab News (https://www.arabnews.com/node/1810071/middle-east)

The people of the Gaza Strip have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, as the existing humanitarian crisis has left them completely exposed to this new public health crisis. Gaza completely lacks the economic resources necessary to cope with the pandemic. The Israeli military blockade, which began in 2007 and intensified in 2014, has left Gaza destitute. As no goods can leave Gaza and only a small amount are allowed to be imported, for over a decade there has been no possibility for trade or outside investment. This has led to Gaza’s GDP shrinking to less than half of its pre-blockade size, plunging the population into poverty. Over 55% of Gaza’s citizens live below the poverty line, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. If it were not for the blockade, the UNCTAD estimates this figure would be just 15%. With virtually no access to food imports and much of Gaza’s agricultural land now inaccessible to its citizens, the majority of Gazans live with food insecurity. There is little sanitation and water infrastructure in the Gaza Strip and the Israeli military has repeatedly blocked imports of the materials necessary for the development of this infrastructure. This has left the citizens of Gaza with no choice but to rely solely on heavily polluted drinking water - something nearly unimaginable in a city surrounded on all sides by one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

These underlying conditions have not only rendered quality of life shockingly low, but they have served to make Gaza exceptionally vulnerable to the pandemic. As most workers in Gaza live day-to-day, it is near impossible for social distancing measures to be successfully implemented. Gazans are being forced to choose between either staying home for their health or working and earning enough so their families can eat. It is not only with social distancing measures that Gaza is struggling. Gaza’s healthcare system was already at the point of collapse prior to the pandemic. The 2 million citizens of Gaza are served by just fourteen hospitals, which are sorely underequipped and underfunded. Moreover, the Israeli’s military refusal to allow construction materials to enter Gaza has made it impossible for their healthcare system to develop in pace with population growth. Prior to the pandemic, Gazans only opportunity for adequate healthcare was to travel with a permit to Israel or the West Bank. To do so, permission from the Israeli military was needed and rarely granted. However, even this limited access is no longer an option as due to the COVID-19 outbreak, all travel from Gaza to Israel has been completely stopped.

The existing economic and public health conditions in Gaza make a successful vaccine campaign vital. However, there is no prospect of a vaccine campaign on the horizon. Whilst Israel has become the toast of the international community for its trailblazing vaccination campaign, it has left Gaza and the West Bank in the dust. Israel has successfully vaccinated 40% of its population and witnessed a 95% reduction in new COVID-19 cases amongst those who have been vaccinated. However, this astonishing vaccine campaign is not as comprehensive as it appears. Though any Israeli citizen over 16 is entitled to immediate access to the vaccine, the 4.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza strip have no such luck. Only a handful of Palestinians who commute from the West Bank to Israel for work have been included in vaccination plans. Israel’s Health Minister has publicly denied having any responsibility to vaccinate people living in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and for months Israel has ignored calls from the international community to import vaccines into Gaza and the West Bank.

As Palestinians living in the Occupied Territories live under Israeli rule, their health and well-being is the legal responsibility of the Israeli state. International law clearly dictates that in the case of military occupation, the occupying power has the same responsibility towards civilians living under occupation as it does to its own citizens. The Fourth Geneva Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, clearly stipulates that in the case of military occupation the occupying power is obliged to provide medical care to all people living in its occupied territories. Furthermore, the Israeli government made an agreement to share healthcare responsibilities with the Palestinian Authority in the case of a pandemic in the 1994 Oslo Accords. Therefore, there is no question of Israel's legal obligation to include Palestinians in its vaccine program. The government’s refusal to do so is just another example of the Israeli government’s total disdain for international law.

The Israeli government has not only refused to provide vaccines for the citizens of Gaza but has actively sought to prevent other states from doing so. Vaccine access has been used as a political bargaining chip. Despite international pressure, the Israeli parliament attempted to block 2,000 donated doses of the Sputnik V vaccine destined for frontline health workers from entering Gaza unless Hamas agreed to prisoner exchanges. Without these vaccinations, the already overworked and understaffed healthcare system in Gaza is liable to collapse under the pressure of the pandemic. Gaza has been suffering from a chronic shortage of healthcare professionals, and its healthcare system cannot afford to lose any healthcare workers to illness. Using access to life-saving healthcare as a bargaining chip is immoral, dangerous, and a complete violation of international law. The health and well-being of civilians in Gaza should not be dependent on Hamas’s willingness to bow to Israeli demands.

The Israeli government justifies its blockade of Gaza as necessary due to security concerns over the tensions with Gaza’s ruling party Hamas. However, thirteen years of the blockade have failed to end hostilities between Israel and Hamas or alter Hamas’s policy. Clearly, the blockade is not an appropriate strategy for dealing with the conflict. Furthermore, the government of Israel does not have the right to punish the civilians of Gaza for the actions of Hamas militants. The State of Israel should not prioritize its security concerns over Palestinians’ basic human rights to clean drinking water, food security, adequate healthcare and freedom of movement.

With the culmination of years of military blockade and the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems that a total humanitarian catastrophe is imminent in Gaza. Its health care system and vital infrastructure are not fit for purpose. The international community must no longer stand by and finally put political pressure on Israel to end the blockade and include Palestinians in its vaccination program. The State of Israel has been allowed to violate international law for too long, at the cost of Palestinian lives. Significant economic and diplomatic pressure on the Israeli government has the potential to completely end the blockade. So we, in Europe and beyond, must call on our politicians to stand up for Palestinians. With elections upcoming in the Netherlands, be aware of politicians' support for Palestinians and use your vote for human rights.