Op-ed: A new crisis in Gaza

Monday, April 20, 2020 - 4:53pm

While many parts of the world are now experiencing emotional darkness and instability, Israeli occupied territory is uniquely vulnerable to a coronavirus outbreak. With only four hours of electricity available each day, the lights have been out in Gaza for 13 years. In 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a land, air and sea blockade of the Gaza Strip after Hamas took control of the territory, leaving Gaza’s approximately two million residents isolated from the rest of the world. The economic and social realities on the other side of the blockade have dangerous implications. More than 70 percent of Gazans receive humanitarian aid and 50 percent are unemployed. These statistics, coupled with poor health infrastructure, leave Gazans ill-equipped to tend to the economic and public health consequences that are sure to ensue.

The first two recommendations from the World Health Organization regarding protective measures against the coronavirus are to wash hands frequently and to maintain social distancing. These recommendations have been a nuisance to all, but have highlighted long-standing social inequity for many marginalized communities. In Gaza, social distancing and hand washing may be some of the least accessible practices for residents. Less than 4 percent of freshwater is drinkable and with a population of two million people living in a territory the size of Detroit, Gaza is the third most densely populated polity in the world, making it ripe for an outbreak.

In the wake of a global pandemic, it is important to recognize the parallels these new circumstances present in relation to pre-pandemic living for so many Gazans. While the wealthy have access to savings and health care, unemployment and steep medical care costs can be just as deadly as the coronavirus for the working class. This pandemic is disproportionately impacting underprivileged groups — and that’s why anyone who’s been monitoring the situation of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank has cause for concern.

Leaders in the Palestinian Authority have claimed that Israeli police purposely dropped off a Palestinian worker showing symptoms of coronavirus at a checkpoint, instead of treating them, as agreed upon. Furthermore, Palestinians have accused Israeli Defense Forces soldiers of spitting on them to infect them with the virus. There have also been reports of increased violence among settlers in the West Bank against Palestinians.

While Israel has succeeded in slowing the spread of COVID-19 thus far, existing Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza will have a disastrous effect once the virus inevitably spreads. The Israeli blockade of Gaza continues to undermine living and economic conditions, which make the spread of coronavirus — and human suffering — all the more likely. For instance, due to the blockade and frequent conflicts with Israel, as of April 6, there were only 70 ICU beds for all of Gaza. Simply put, Gaza does not have the health infrastructure or supplies to deal with this crisis alone.

With the virus quickly spreading, it is imperative for authorities to take action now. As a longtime ally of Israel, the United States is in a position to exert some amount of influence over the situation. Last year, Congress voted to send $75 million in aid to Palestinians living in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. However, the Trump administration has blocked that aid from being delivered at a time when it is most needed. The Trump administration recently announced it will give $5 million in humanitarian assistance to hospitals in the West Bank. This is an encouraging step in the right direction, but it's not nearly enough. Five million dollars is a drop in the bucket and Gaza continues to receive no aid from the U.S. despite its severe shortage of medical supplies.

There are other actions that Israel can take to combat the spread of the virus in Gaza and the West Bank. The blockade restricting the passage of goods and people into Gaza will make it difficult for residents to access much-needed medical supplies and personnel. For years, the United Nations has called the blockade a “denial of basic human rights.” Now, more than ever, Israel must allow Palestinians access to basic medical necessities. Human rights watchdogs — including the UN and Human Rights Watch — have also condemned Israel in the past for detaining thousands of Palestinians without access to legal representation, health care or proper sanitation. Now, those detainees pose an enormous health risk and must be released from detention. Additionally, Israel must address the immense shortage of COVID-19 test kits available in occupied territory.

The U.S. is not without power. The unconditional military assistance which the U.S. gives to Israel helps fund the continued occupation and oppression of Palestinians. The U.S. must demand that Israel address the oncoming health crisis in occupied territory and put an end to its long record of human rights abuses. Attaching these conditions to U.S. military aid, along with releasing the promised $75 million in humanitarian aid to Palestinians, are preliminary steps that our country can take to begin to address Israel’s human rights crisis. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, it is of utmost importance that we demand our lawmakers move to the right side of history.

As Jewish people, we feel a shared responsibility to oppose the Israeli occupation and work toward a peaceful two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this frightening age of COVID-19, we share a heightened concern for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank with all who are concerned for the state of human rights in Israel. The three of us are members of J Street, an organization rooted in the American Jewish community and advocating against the occupation. You can sign the J Street petition to unfreeze aid to Palestinians at jstreet.org.

Shoshana Weinstein, Cora Galpern and Aaron Lev are first-year students in the College of Literature, Science & the Arts and can be reached at shoshlw@umich.edu, cgalp@umich.edu and aalev@umich.edu respectively.