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Palestine on the Brink

“As Gaza’s healthcare system has been starved of resources due to the siege, it would be a particularly disastrous place to have a coronavirus outbreak.”

Labour & Palestine.

With Israeli Government aggression continuing, the people of Palestine need international solidarity to ensure they get the resources they need to fight COVID-19, write the Labour & Palestine Team.

In his last speech as Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn noted that the coronavirus was now hitting “the mass open-air prison that is the Gaza Strip.” Since then, within Gaza at the time of writing (May 21) 55 cases of COVID-19 had been detected and quarantined, with great concern at new cases coming from refugees returning from Egypt this week.

The risk of an outbreak amongst the strip’s Gaza’s two-million population remains very real.  As Gaza’s healthcare system has been starved of resources due to the siege, it would be a particularly disastrous place to have a coronavirus outbreak.

Recent reports have said there are only 60 working ventilators and 2,800 hospital beds in Gaza, and that stocks of essential drugs are already chronically low.

The supply of testing kits was limited to hundreds for a population approaching 2 million.

The UN has previously warned that Gaza would be uninhabitable by 2020, and now 13 years of an illegal blockade mean that Gaza’s fragile healthcare system is already stretched to a point that it is hard for us to imagine.

Gaza is also one of the most densely populated areas on the planet and still facing regular Israeli military attacks.

To help try and avoid the spread of the virus measures that can be taken are being, including the United Nations agency (UNRWA) preparing food rations to be delivered to the homes of Palestinian refugee families in an effort to avoid people congregating at distribution centres, but what is really needed is a lifting of the siege.

Authorities in Gaza have also announced that they were allocating $1 million for emergency payments to 10,000 families who have lost their incomes due to the pandemic, and that another $300,000 had been donated from the salaries of government employees for redistribution to low-income families.

Linked to this, demands are also growing internationally that this crisis means more than ever Israel must end the siege of Gaza, including so that Palestinians can both manufacture and obtain much needed PPE, medicines and medical equipment.

There is also grave concern regarding the further spread of coronavirus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the illegally annexed East Jerusalem.

At the time of writing, the occupied Palestinian territories have confirmed more than 400 cases of Covid-19, and the Palestinian Authority placed the areas of the West Bank that it controls under a lockdown on 22 March. Furthermore, OCHA has expressed a view that the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in Palestine “may reflect the limited testing capacity.”

Palestinians living in the West Bank and Jerusalem are largely concentrated in packed refugee camps. Squalid living conditions mean they too have severely limited access to water, health and other resources.

As the UN humanitarian coordination agency (OCHA) have said, “people in refugee camps and other poor, densely populated areas across the [occupied Palestinian territories] face a higher risk of contagion due to overcrowding and inadequate sanitation.”

In East Jerusalem – where nearly 400,000 Palestinians live, as ‘residents’, not citizens. Dr Rawan Al-Dajani, Deputy Director of the Community Action Center has reported that attempts by Palestinian doctors to establish a quarantine facility in an unused hotel were blocked because of the absence of testing. No testing kits were supplied, and an offer from the Palestine Authority in the West Bank to supply kits was declined.

It has also been reported that the Israeli military arbitrarily raided and closed down a coronavirus testing clinic in East Jerusalem.

In the West Bank meanwhile, emergency treatment facilities being established in case they were needed, were bulldozed and demolished.

There is also international concern for the well-being during the coronavirus outbreak in Israel of some 5,000 Palestinian political prisoners held by Israel. In 2019, five Palestinians died in Israeli custody.

Unfortunately, continuing the siege of Gaza is just one of a number of aggressive policies being advocated by the new coalition Government in Israel.

The coalition’s two main parties – Likud and Blue and White – have both recently expressed support for annexing massive swathes of Palestinian territory – with a July date seeming likely – along the lines outlined in Trump’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century’ Plan, which has been widely condemned across Palestinian society and internationally.

As Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said in her letter to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, such annexation would be “in direct contravention of international law” and therefore “we must ensure that actions which will set back the prospect of peace and undermine international law do not go unaddressed.”

Over 140 MPs have also signed a letter saying that the British Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary must make clear publicly to Israel that any annexation of occupied Palestinian territory “will have severe consequences including sanctions”. 

The context to this is that the Trump administration has been encouraging Netanyahu in annexation and other aggressive policies, and also cut vital international funding to Palestine in recent years.

This was highlighted by recent reports that the US will give just 5 million dollars to Palestine to help deal with the coronavirus crisis, which amounts to about 1% of the amount given before Trump slashed almost all aid.

In 2018, Trump cancelled more than $200m in economic aid, included $25m specifically earmarked for underfunded East Jerusalem hospitals.

As was recognised and opposed by Labour Party Conference in 2018, the erratic US President also withdrew funding of approximately 200 million dollars a year from UNRWA, the aforementioned vital UN body that supports more than 5 million Palestinian refugees, including for healthcare and other public services, including sanitation.

Faced with Trump’s encouragement of illegal Israeli annexation and aggression at this time of international crisis, it is simply not enough for members of the international community – including the UK Government and the EU – to say they support a meaningful peace process.

The Israeli Government must be held accountable when it breaks international law, diplomatic power must be used to secure an end to the murderous siege of Gaza, and we must have international action now to stop Israel’s illegal annexation plans in their tracks.

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