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Denying Gaza funds it needs to avoid coronavirus mass infections could cost Israel dearly

Mar 25,2020 - Last updated at Mar 25,2020

Israel's siege and blockade have both helped and hindered Gaza's efforts to stave off and fight the novel coronavirus sweeping across the world. On one hand, Israel's decades old lock-down prevented Gaza-based carriers of the virus from entering and infecting Palestinians living in the strip.

Gaza resisted contagion until two elderly Palestinians returned from Pakistan via Egypt. While visiting Pakistan, they decided to attend a five-day religious gathering, Tablighi Jamaat, staged yearly near Lahore. The Pakistani government urged cancellation but did nothing to prevent 250,000 people from gathering at this time of great peril for the globe.

Pakistan was not alone in failing to ban and physically halt pilgrimages: Iran, which became the hub for the regional spread of the virus, refused to order the lock-down of the Shia holy city of Qom, where infections originally occurred due to the presence of Chinese officials and engineers working on infrastructure projects.

After travelling home through equally infected Egypt on the return journey, two Gazans were promptly quarantined before they could infect anyone there but the officials who admitted them and the doctors and nurses who care for them. The two men may survive but many other Palestinians living in Gaza may not.

On the other hand, 24-year Israel's siege and blockade, beginning withHamas' victory in the 1996 Palestinian legislative election and tightened, has degraded Gaza's healthcare system by preventing expansion and denying it essential medications and medical equipment. To make matters worse, Israel's constant bombings and the 2008-2009 and 2014 wars have damaged and destroyed clinics and hospitals and overstretched the underfunded and weak health infrastructure serving two million Gazans.

Israel has exerted full control of Gaza since occupying the strip in 1967. When Israel withdrew its soldiers and colonists from Gaza in 2005, its Palestinian citizens hoped for greater freedom. Instead, Israel continues to assert remote control by retaining control of land borders, sea access and air space. Everyone who comes and goes is monitored by Israel and all goods entering Gaza arrive though the Israeli terminal at Karem Shalom.

Gaza's Health Ministry reports that Israel rations Gaza to 45 per cent of the strip's medical needs. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the ministry have transformed a school in the southern town of Rafah, near the Egyptian border, into a medical facility including a 36-bed intensive care units and another 30 beds for people with mild symptoms. Gazans who have entered the strip have been quarantined at home for two weeks without being tested and pose a risk to the entire population. 

Instead of denying or limiting essential medical and humanitarian supplies, Israel must step up deliveries through the Karem Shalom terminal and ensure that all external aid is expedited. As the occupying power, under the Fourth Geneva Convention and international law, Israel is responsible for the well being of Gaza's Palestinian population. Israel has never accepted this responsibility. The international community has permitted Israel to evade responsibility by providing Gaza, and the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, with aid through the UN, member governments and charitable organisations.

Meeting Gaza's needs has always been a struggle. Instead of facilitating external assistance, Israel has not only limited and interfered supplies, depriving the vulnerable 80 per cent of Gazans who live in poverty, but also has campaigned against the agencies involved in the aid effort. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a major victory in the battle to defund and dismantle the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) which cares for five million Palestinians, two million of whom live in Gaza, when he persuaded the misguided Trump administration to cancel the annual $360 million US contribution to UNRWA's annual budget of $1,2 billion.

While the agency managed to raise money for 2018, there was a massive shortfall for last year. UNRWA's Gaza Director of Operations Mattias Schmale announced that the agency has a $1 billion deficit which could force it to make difficult decisions about the continuation of basic services before the end of April. Donor countries have pledged $400 million for this year, but this amount is far from enough. Qatar has pledged $150 million to support UN efforts to combat the virus.

Denying Gaza the funds it needs to avoid mass infections could cost Israel dearly. If cases are not tested, tracked, treated and spread checked, the virus could become endemic and a permanent threat to Israel itself. A high level of deaths and infections could spark a Third Intifada and could be a public relations nightmare for Israel at a time it is losing international sympathy and support because of the cruel policies adopted by the Netanyahu regime.

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