In August 2012, when the UN released its report Gaza in 2020: A liveable place?, they could not have imagined what the world would look like in 2020: cities under lockdown, restrictions on movement, border closures, widespread unemployment, economic collapse, fear and anxiety and, above all, uncertainty about what the future holds.
For Gaza’s population of 2 million people this reality is nothing new. The conditions that the rest of the world are currently experiencing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic is similar to the tight blockade Gaza has been living under ever since Hamas took over in 2007. Israel has imposed severe restrictions on the movement of people and goods, youth unemployment has reached 60 per cent, and over 80 per cent of Gaza’s population are now dependent on international aid.
The people of Gaza are having to face the COVID-19 crisis already at a disadvantage, with poor infrastructure, limited resources and a shortage of the most basic services, such as water and power supply. It also has a fragile health system, with hospitals lacking essential medical supplies and equipment, as well as the capacity to deal with the outbreak as there are only 84 ICU beds and ventilators available.
Meanwhile, intra-Palestinian divisions have persisted and were evident in the initial reaction to the pandemic. When President Mahmoud Abbas announced a state of emergency, it took two days for the Hamas-led government in Gaza to follow suit and shut down schools and universities. They later made a separate emergency appeal to address the crisis and prepare for a coronavirus response in Gaza. This lack of coordination is typical of the way the Palestinian Authority and Hamas approach crisis situations.
After the initial uncoordinated response, Hamas, as the de-facto ruler of Gaza, has asserted its ability to control Gaza’s borders by putting in place quarantine measures for everyone who enters the strip, whether through the Erez checkpoint with Israel or the Rafah border with Egypt. They have also assigned 21 hospitals, hotels, and schools as compulsory quarantine centres for all arrivals from abroad, who have to stay in quarantine for 21 days. In comparison, there are 20 quarantine centres in the West Bank. These strict measures have prevented the spread of the virus in the community and confined it to the quarantine centres, with only 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of 6 May. Gaza’s de-facto authorities have also been able to monitor markets and prices to ensure the availability of essential goods.
Faced with a major crisis, Al-Qassam Brigades – the armed wing of Hamas – have tried to play the role of a national army by participating in efforts to fight the pandemic. They have relatively good logistical capacity and have contributed to the construction of two quarantine facilities with a total capacity of 1,000 units to prepare for more arrivals into Gaza. At the local level, municipalities have been disinfecting public spaces and facilities in addition to disseminating information about the virus and related preventative and protective measures. Other precautionary measures put in place include closing the weekly open markets, and restricting social gatherings like weddings and funerals.
Despite coronavirus, it’s business as usual when it comes to international dealings with Gaza. The key parties in the conflict – Israel, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority – along with the main external actors – Egypt, the United Nations and Qatar – have continued to stick to their policies aimed at keeping the security situation under control and preventing further escalation. Although Israel has allowed entry of pharmaceutical supplies and medical equipment into Gaza during the pandemic, it has kept its restrictions on the movement of goods and people in place, while keeping a close eye on the development of the COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza – a major outbreak here would be a nightmare scenario for Israel.
Meanwhile, Qatar has continued to address the humanitarian and economic needs of Gaza in an attempt to ease the pressure and prevent further escalation. It has pledged $150 million over the next six months to help families in Gaza from poorer backgrounds. Gaza has also been discussed by the Middle East Quartet, as Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, expressed his concern about the risk of a disease outbreak in Gaza during a call with the members of the Quartet.
Amid the pandemic, threats are still being exchanged between Israel and Hamas. The Israeli defence minister, Naftali Bennett, requested that in return for providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, Hamas agrees to return the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 war. While openly rejecting Bennett's statement, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has offered to move forward with a prisoner swap deal if Israel agrees to release elderly prisoners and detainees in addition to detained women and children. Though dealing with its own COVID-19 outbreak, Egypt has started to mediate between the two parties in an attempt to stabilize the situation and reach a prisoner swap deal.
In the wake of this pandemic, lessons should be learned and policies should be examined, by all parties. Firstly, Israel should re-evaluate its security measures towards Gaza by easing restrictions on movement and trade which would have a positive impact on living conditions for Gaza’s population. The current measures have proven to be unsustainable and have contributed to the endless cycle of violence. Secondly, the intra-Palestinian division should end, to save Palestinians from contradictory policies and insufficient capacity on both sides. In fact, all previous attempts have failed to end this self-destructive division and this is due to the absence of political will on both sides. Elections seem to be the only viable path towards unity. Finally, efforts by the international community should go beyond stabilizing the security situation and ongoing crisis inside Gaza, where disruption of normal life is the norm.
While the world has reacted to the coronavirus pandemic with a whole host of new policies and emergency measures, it has remained business as usual when dealing with Gaza. Should COVID-19 spread in Gaza, its people – who have already paid the price of a continuous blockade and intra-Palestinian division for 13 years – will pay a heavy price yet again. However, this time it is not a crisis that they alone will have to face.