Adnan Abu Amer
Middle East Monitor / March 28, 2020
Once the first infections with the coronavirus were announced in the Gaza Strip, Hamas showed intense political engagement by making contacts with several countries to provide aid to the strip. The movement’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, contacted the emir of Qatar, the Turkish president and the Iranian foreign minister, while he called on the king of Saudi Arabia to release Hamas’ detainees in the kingdom’s prisons for fear of contracting the virus.
This article will discuss the political activity of Hamas, its health and political goals, what these countries will provide for Gaza, and whether this aid will be delivered through Hamas’ channels of distribution or through the Palestinian Authority (PA), while speculating the type of response Saudi Arabia will extend to Hamas’ demands to release its detainees, especially after the Houthi initiative to conclude a swap deal with the kingdom to release Hamas’ prisoners in exchange for captured Saudi officers in Yemen.
Since the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip announced recording only a few cases of infection with the coronavirus, Hamas has shown a clear interest in encouraging friendly countries to yield humanitarian aid for the strip, for fear of a virus outbreak amid the poor health conditions and lack of medical care resources.
Immediately after this announcement was made, Haniyeh started working on developing high-level contacts with some of the leaders of the region, requesting humanitarian assistance to Palestinians inside and outside of Gaza.
Haniyeh announced in a press statement the allocation of half a million dollars to support the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon to face the pandemic, then contacted the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, to show solidarity with the Iranian people who are suffering from an intense outbreak of the Coronavirus or COVID-19. Meanwhile, the movement’s leader called on Iran to provide the Palestinian people with the necessary medical materials to confront the spread of the virus.
Later, Haniyeh called for King Salman Bin Abdulaziz to release Hamas detainees, held in the kingdom’s prisons since April 2019, over health concerns following the propagation of the pandemic; though no link has been established between Haniyeh’s request from Saudi Arabia and the detection of two cases of infection with the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas’ leader had two separate phone calls with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad, during which he discussed with them the possible ways to combat the pandemic in Gaza.
Haniyeh confirmed in a statement that the two leaders expressed their willingness to help the Palestinian people to face the spread of the virus, by pumping the necessary funds and resources, even though the content of the two phone conversations was announced from the movement’s part only – i.e. neither the Qatari ruler nor the Turkish president issued official statements about the discussions they had with the Palestinian official.
Hamas spokespersons emphasised that since the detection of the first infections with the virus in Gaza, Hamas has moved to combat the spread of COVID-19 out of a high sense of national responsibility, and the movement’s wide presence in the Palestinian streets. Hamas has helped the government agencies in the Gaza Strip to equip the locations where the infected people will be quarantined, in addition to undertaking the political and diplomatic initiative to communicate with Qatar, Turkey, Iran and Egypt in order to ensure the continuity of bilateral trade movement with Gaza to avoid a food crisis. On the other hand, the movement has also requested from Saudi Arabia to release the Palestinian detainees, including the sick and the elderly, while the PA is falling short of helping Gaza, even with the spread of the pandemic.
Immediately after Hamas started contacting the aforementioned countries, the Qatar News Agency announced that Qatar provided $150 million to support the Gaza Strip to combat the pandemic, over a period of six months, to help alleviate the suffering of the Palestinian people. Thus, Haniyeh thanked the emir of Qatar, considering this financial aid as an extension of the long-standing Qatari position toward the Palestinians.
The Qatari ambassador to the Palestinian territories, Mohammed Al-Emadi, who heads the Qatari Committee for Reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, also started providing assistance to hundreds of Palestinians in the quarantine centres in the strip, including the distribution of meals, electrical appliances, blankets, pillows and mattresses, as well as securing the necessary quantities of fuel to provide electricity to the centres, in cooperation with the ministries of social development and health in Gaza.
The Hamas-managed ministries in the strip, and not the movement itself, have sought through recent contacts to support the medical capabilities in Gaza, as it has conducted direct coordination with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the PA, especially the ministries of health and social development. Nonetheless, these government bodies, which have established indirect coordination with Israel to receive the necessary requirements to confront the virus, succeeded in providing laboratory testing equipment, sterilisation supplies and medical devices.
By pumping funds to help Gaza confront COVID-19, Qatar has chosen the only available option to cooperate with Hamas, within the limits of what is permitted by Israel and internationally. Since Israel is concerned about the outbreak of the epidemic in Gaza, it will not allow the situation to deteriorate there, and therefore the occupation authorities will facilitate the provision of preventive measures to aid the strip confront the spread of the virus.
While the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip revealed that the medical teams provided 1,420 hosts in the quarantine centres with necessary medical care, the health system in Gaza is struggling amid the shortage of 39 per cent of basic medications, 23 per cent of medical materials, and 60 per cent of laboratory supplies and blood banks, in addition to the severe lack of virus test kits.
Admittedly, Gaza’s Ministry of Health has revealed only several individual cases of the coronavirus so far. However, the increasing number of people in quarantine comes due to fear of being infected through existing cases, whether from the two people who have been examined, or from Palestinian travellers returning from abroad through the Rafah crossing, in the south with Egypt, and the Beit Hanoun (Erez) border crossing.
The promises to help in fighting the coronavirus that the government entities in Gaza received from some countries, have not yet been fulfilled. Government entities are making efforts along with international bodies to purchase the necessary equipment to limit the spread of the pandemic, especially respirators, implantable cardioverter defibrillators and intensive care units.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza has a severe shortage of these materials, and it needs 100 respirators, costing $30,000 each, but the problem is that these devices are decreasing globally due to the high demand for them. As for the PA, it does not coordinate with the ministry, and Gaza did not receive anything from all the aid and grants that the PA received to deal with the pandemic.
Hamas announced that Turkey is prepared to provide Gaza with medical assistance to confront COVID-19, especially the opening of the Turkish-Palestinian Al-Sadaka Hospital in Gaza, which began construction in 2011, and was completed in 2017 but has not yet been opened, with no reason given. However, the Islamic University of Gaza announced hours earlier that it has been allowed to use the hospital in cases of emergency due to the coronavirus. The hospital, with all its capabilities and equipment, will be placed at the disposal of the Ministry of Health in Gaza, as it possesses high-level capabilities and equipment.
The Turkish hospital in Gaza can accommodate two hundred beds, and it consists of several buildings. It is equipped with the latest devices, appropriate medical mattresses and the best equipment for the different types of radiology departments, operating room facilities, intensive care and various other forms of equipment.
Hamas clearly wants to use its foreign relations to provide humanitarian and health assistance to confront the coronavirus in Gaza, especially with its friends Iran, Turkey and Qatar, and to provide financial support for the relief of Palestinians who have been economically affected by the pandemic. Qatar and Turkey responded to Hamas’ humanitarian and health demands to confront COVID-19 in Gaza. As for Iran, Hamas obviously understands its worsening crisis due to the spread of the pandemic in the country.
Regarding its detainees in Saudi prisons, Hamas fears that the coronavirus pandemic will reach them, and it may have wanted to play on the emotional tendencies, influence the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and ask some mediators to convince it to release them.
There were no Saudi reactions to Haniyeh’s request from the Saudi king to release the Hamas detainees in KSA. However, Hamas circles expected that the file of Hamas detainees in Saudi Arabia might be closed by releasing them before the month of Ramadan, in May, and revealed that Hamas is making direct contacts and mediators with Saudi Arabia to release them.
Later, the leader of the Houthis in Yemen, Abdulmalik Al-Houthi, announced his willingness to release a Saudi captive pilot with four officers and soldiers, in exchange for Hamas detainees. Hamas has issued an important statement on this initiative, and confirmed its follow-up with interest, appreciating the spirit of fraternity and sympathy for the Palestinian people, and supporting its resistance. It also expressed its thanks for this interest and initiative, reiterating its continuous demand to Saudi Arabia of the urgent need to release all Palestinian detainees from the kingdom’s prisons.
The emergence of the coronavirus in Gaza came at a time when Haniyeh was outside of it, which gave Hamas a wide margin to move along with other countries, especially with its efforts to employ its political relations to support the humanitarian and health sectors. The spread of the coronavirus in many countries across the globe is unfavourable to Hamas, because it has problems that distract it from supporting Gaza.
Although the PA opposes Turkish, Iranian and Qatari relations with Hamas, it may turn a blind eye to them, especially at this stage, because these countries may help Gaza, and absolve the PA of its humanitarian and health responsibilities towards the strip which fears the spread of the coronavirus, especially as Hamas accuses the PA of ignoring Gaza.
Adnan Abu Amer is a Palestinian academic