COVID in besieged Gaza: ‘A blockade inside a blockade’

Nusseirat refugee camp, Gaza Strip (Adel Hana - AP)

Maram Humaid

Al-Jazeera  /  December 26, 2020

With infections surging, COVID-19 has exacerbated the Palestinian enclave’s already dire living conditions in 2020.

Eight years ago, the United Nations warned that the Gaza Strip would not be a “liveable place” by 2020, urging Israel to lift its years-long blockade against the Palestinian coastal enclave and calling for a “herculean effort” to improve basic services there.

But Israel and Egypt have continued the crippling air, land and sea blockade imposed in 2007, mostly isolating the territory’s nearly two million residents from the rest of the world.

When 2020 arrived, the conditions in Gaza were marked by water and medicine shortages as well as a severe power crisis, with residents of the enclave receiving only up to six hours of electricity per day, a situation some called “no longer tolerable”.

The coronavirus – which swept across the world this year, infecting tens of millions and upending life in nearly every country – has only exacerbated Gaza’s woes.

“People in Gaza had enough in their lives, moving from a crisis to another without a break,” said Mahmoud Abu Samaan, 34, an employee at the Hamas-run Ministry of Communication.

“You can’t force the people to sit at their homes, without electricity, food or money. This is a blockade within a blockade.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gaza has recorded more than 36,000 cases and 310 deaths. The virus has spread rapidly in the congested enclave, where 70 percent of the population are refugees who live in overcrowded camps.

Hamas, which controls the territory, has suspended Friday prayers at mosques, shut down restaurants, wedding halls and receptions. The lockdown has left thousands without work, worsening the unemployment rate, which stood at more than 50 percent even before the pandemic.

Abu Samaan said he and his family of four all tested positive for the virus, but their symptoms were light.

“I was very afraid,” he said. “Not of the virus, but of the dire health system here.”

“It’s not the coronavirus, but the ongoing blockade that has destroyed our lives.”

‘Disastrous’

Wafaa Abu Kwaik, an English teacher, also contracted the virus, along with her husband and five children.

The 40-year-old said a total of 19 people in her extended family fell ill. But Abu Kwaik said she and her relatives did not receive adequate care.

“My 62-year-old mother’s condition deteriorated due to her hypertension and diabetes,” Abu Kwaik said.

Her mother’s condition was serious, but she recovered after spending 15 days in the intensive care unit.

“The situation was very difficult. There were hundreds of cases a day and not enough beds. The medical staff could not deal with these numbers, and most people were deteriorating not because of the virus, but because of the lack of equipment and medical facilities to treat them.”

The Israeli-Egyptian blockade has left Gaza’s healthcare system in a dire state.

Abd al-Latif al-Hajj, director of international cooperation at the Hamas-run Ministry of Health, said Gaza’s healthcare system has been overstretched for years amid the blockade and from three significant Israeli military assaults on the enclave.

“This year, there is a shortage of 47 percent in medications, 32 percent deficit in medical consumables and a 62 percent deficit in medical laboratory supplies,” he said.

“There is also a lack of medical staff who work at a limited capacity as they do not receive regular salaries.”

With the COVID-19 outbreak, the situation in Gaza hospitals was “disastrous”, al-Hajj said, adding that people with other chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer, were now unable to leave Gaza for medical treatment because of the pandemic.

Al-Hajj also noted that Israel has already begun vaccinating its citizens, ignoring its responsibility towards the occupied Gaza Strip.

“Unfortunately, no one can force Israel to fulfil its obligations towards the Palestinians,” he said.

Pouring ‘oil on the fire’

Israel imposed the blockade on Gaza in June 2007, restricting the flow of goods and people in and out of Gaza after Hamas took control of the territory.

The UN has called for an end to the Israeli siege, saying the blockade amounts to “collective punishment of the two million residents of Gaza” – an act prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Egyptian limits on the movement of Gaza Palestinians through the Rafah border crossing and Hamas’s disputes with the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, has worsened the situation.

The PA has limited financial transfers to Gaza and even asked Israel to cut back electricity supplies.

“We have to find new terms to describe the situation in Gaza,” said Omar Shaban, a Gaza-based political analyst.

“The UN said in 2012 that Gaza will not be liveable in 2020. Then came the 2014 war, which lasted for 51 days and destroyed the infrastructure in the Gaza, followed by several military escalations and a suffocating economic blockade.”

He added: “In 2020, the coronavirus came to pour oil on the fire, and the situation here became catastrophic at all levels.”

In April, 19 human rights groups urged Israel to lift its siege on Gaza so that the territory could equip itself with the necessary medical supplies to deal with the pandemic.

‘Gaza cannot continue like this’

Azzam Shaath, a legal researcher at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, said Israel also had a responsibility as an occupying power to care for the Palestinians living in Gaza.

“It should respond to the emergency needs, provide equipment and medical care aid, and implement detective measures to prevent contamination and infections,” he said.

“Israel should immediately remove restrictions to movement of goods and any other barriers on trade exchange and economic activities that threaten the public health.”

He called on the international community to pressure Israel to end the Gaza blockade.

“The international community needs to understand that Gaza cannot continue like this,” he said.

“What the world has witnessed this year is what the people of Gaza have lived through during the 14 years of the Israeli blockade.”

Maram Humaid is a Palestinian journalist from the Gaza Strip