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Coronavirus in ill-equipped Gaza spurs fears and a jolt of pragmatism


Ironically, the conflict between Hamas and Israel helped protect Palestinian residents of the blockaded Gaza Strip from the coronavirus pandemic as it spread around the globe. But in late August, COVID-19 slipped the confines of quarantine centers for returning travelers and penetrated the territory’s densely populated neighborhoods, raising alarms.

“Look what corona did in the U.S. and Europe, where there is a system and a government that can support the people,” says Mohammed Aziza, an NGO fieldworker in Gaza. “The problem is not just the coronavirus. It’s the infrastructure, the water, the medical system, the electricity.”

But there has been one important silver lining. The outbreak’s rising numbers prompted Hamas and Israel to wind down weeks of escalating strife. Some observers say the pandemic should spur Israelis, Palestinians, and international officials to find ways to act on long-discussed compromises that would boost Gaza’s economy and infrastructure.

Gidon Bromberg, Israel director for EcoPeace Middle East, advocates steps to help Gaza’s power and water supplies and sewage treatment. “COVID should be a wake-up call that these things shouldn’t be just on the discussion table,” he says. “Progress needs to be made.”

Tel Aviv, Israel

For nearly a decade and a half, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have suffered under a suffocating blockade by both Israel and Egypt. Yet ironically, as the coronavirus pandemic spread around the globe this year, their isolation helped spare them a public health emergency.

In late August, however, Gazans joined the rest of the world, as COVID-19 slipped the confines of quarantine centers for returning travelers and penetrated the densely populated neighborhoods where the territory’s 2 million citizens reside.

That development has heightened worry that the Gaza Strip – with its infrastructure, economy, and health system all hobbled by relentless conflict between the territory’s Hamas rulers and Israel – stands hopelessly underequipped to fight a virus that has already burned through countries that are considerably more resilient.

“Look what corona did in the U.S. and Europe, where there is a system and a government that can support the people. There is no system like that here that can support all of the people in Gaza,” says Mohammed Aziza, a fieldworker for Gisha, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that advocates for Palestinian human rights. “The problem is not just the coronavirus. It’s the infrastructure, the water, the medical system, the electricity,” says Mr. Aziza, who lives in the town of Deir el-Balah.

“We were all in shock, because we didn’t expect that it would sneak into Gaza,” says Hana Salah, a freelance journalist in Gaza City whose family has stopped entertaining guests or going to the beach to comply with social distancing rules.

“I hope things will go back to normal, but we are afraid that the situation will not stay the same,” she says. “The map of the spread is not known. Every day it’s a new area.”

Years after the United Nations warned that Gaza would become unlivable by 2020 without improved infrastructure and basic services, international officials and residents say the dire health consequences of the pandemic could dramatically eliminate whatever resilience was left in the territory. Aside from Hamas’ battle with Israel, the militant Islamic group has bad relations with Egypt and a 13-year feud with the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank.

A Palestinian girl fills a container with water from a public tap during a lockdown amid the coronavirus outbreak, in Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip Sept. 10, 2020.

The virus was first reported in the Strip in March among Palestinians returning from abroad, with individuals confined to special quarantine camps. But in the last 2 1/2 weeks, the number of new daily cases has climbed steadily to 195, for a total of 1,551 cases as of Thursday, according to local health authorities. 

In response, Hamas has enforced strict lockdowns in hot spots in the north, subdivided the coastal territory with a system of checkpoints, and closed schools, mosques, and flea markets. Residents say Hamas has resorted to harsh tactics such as beatings, water cannons, and dirt barriers to keep people off the streets and confined to hometowns.

Silver lining: De-escalation

But there has been one important silver lining. The outbreak’s rising numbers in Gaza (and Israel) prompted the two sides to wind down weeks of escalating strife: cross-border incendiary balloon attacks on southern Israel, and retaliatory strikes into Gaza.

And to help mediate a cease-fire, the government of Qatar boosted its monthly aid to Gaza from about $25 million to $45 million – though that falls well short of the additional aid that Gaza currently needs.

“The deal [between Hamas and Israel] was done after the spread of COVID-19 was discovered. It was an important factor,” says Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of political science at Gaza’s Al-Azhar University. “You would have a much more disastrous situation if you had to deal with the spread of COVID in addition to the escalation with Israel.”

Some observers say the pandemic should spur Israelis, Palestinians, and international officials to act on long-discussed compromises that would boost Gaza’s economy and infrastructure in return for finding a way to disarm militants there and end cross-border attacks. 

Containing the virus is an interest shared by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, Israel, and Egypt, says Eitan Dangot, a retired general who used to head Israel’s administration of the occupied Palestinian territories. “Maybe there’s an opportunity to build trust between both sides,” he says. 

Though the pandemic prompted Israel and Hamas to de-escalate for now, Gazans and Israelis alike fear the opposite is still possible – that rising unrest in Gaza over the virus prompts Hamas to lash out at Israel to preserve its power. 

Hamas police officers stop vehicles during a lockdown imposed following community spread of coronavirus cases beyond quarantine camps in the densely populated Gaza Strip, Aug. 27, 2020.

“I’m afraid we are going to collapse, and we will lose control in the street. If the government loses control, it could opt for a clash with Israel,” says Swairjo Tholfakr, a doctor who owns a Gaza City pharmacy that has been closed for two weeks. Even when the shop reopens, Dr. Tholfakr says, he will have few medicines to offer. 

“There’s no medicine in the hospitals and no medicine in the free market,” he says. “There is no money for people to buy their own medications.”

Equipment shortage

The territory also lacks basic medical equipment with which to fight an outbreak: There were only about 70 beds in intensive care units before the start of the crisis, and the number of ventilators has doubled to 100; testing kits are inadequate, and contact tracing is nonexistent. The COVID-19 challenge is compounded by a broken sewage treatment system, daily electricity outages, a 53% poverty rate, and the fact that only 10% of houses have direct access to safe water.

“We have to manage an acute situation on top of chronic long-lasting misery,” says Bassem Naim, who served in the past as health minister for the Hamas government. In addition to the conflict with Israel, Dr. Naim also complains about public-sector wage cuts by the rival Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

“The medical staff is exhausted. We are working without salaries; we have had three big wars, and continuing aggression. They are exhausted physiologically, socially, and financially.”

When the coronavirus first arrived in the spring, Israel sent several test kits to Gaza through third parties. In recent months, the U.N. has helped obtain additional medical devices. On the other hand, fewer Gazans received permits from Israel and the Palestinian Authority to leave the territory for medical treatment in Israeli hospitals or in the West Bank – further stressing the local health system. The World Health Organization recently said it would help negotiate the crossings.

Fatalistic youth

One factor that could complicate the crisis is that Gaza’s population skews young: Nearly two-thirds of Palestinians there are under the age of 24.

Growing up amid an atmosphere of repeated conflict – Hamas and Israel fought three brief wars between 2009 and 2014 – might give Gazans a fatalistic attitude toward the pandemic. 

“I have lived my entire life under occupation. Talking about fear is like talking about food. In every Gaza house, there is a story of a martyr, or a dream that is dead,” says Issam Odwan, project manager at a nonprofit that promotes creative writing.

“If people are not dying because of bombs, they are dying because of the lack of medical equipment or the economic situation,” he says. “How can people be afraid of COVID-19, when they have been living with death for so long?”

Gidon Bromberg, the Israel director for EcoPeace Middle East, says to help fuel local power plants and provide power for sewage treatment, Israel and the Palestinians should work to hook up the territory to Israel’s offshore natural gas fields and upgrade the capacity of existing power lines into Gaza. For the time being, Israel could provide additional water through a pipeline that has already been built but is not in use amid unresolved questions over who will pay for it.

“COVID should be a wake-up call that these things shouldn’t be just on the discussion table. Progress needs to be made,” Mr. Bromberg says. “If COVID gets out of control, you are going to see reactions in Gaza that could be horrific; you could see hundreds of thousands of Gazans trying to walk to the fence out of fear of staying in Gaza.”  

Last week, in a display of pragmatism, a delegation from the Palestinian Authority visited Gaza for rare talks with local Hamas officials, says Shira Efron, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv. After years of talks and failed aid efforts in Gaza, it might take a severer crisis to shake Israel, Hamas, the Palestinian Authority, and the international community into action.

“As long as Hamas is in power, it’s very clear that Israel has its red line. The international community is fatigued, and it doesn’t see to what end it’s investing. Qatar is the only player that is investing,” she says. “You need something much bigger to change the trajectory of Gaza.”

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