The overcrowded and impoverished Palestinian territory ruled by Hamas leaders, the Gaza Strip faces particular vulnerability during the COVID-19 pandemic. The West Bank, where the Palestinian National Authority is in power under the command of Mahmoud Abbas, faces a similar situation.
What is worrying about the situation in both places is a highly concentrated population with very limited economic opportunities.
On March 5, 2020, the West Bank reported its first cases of COVID-19. By April 30, approximately 340 cases and two deaths had been confirmed.
On March 22, the Gaza Strip reported two cases involving people returning from Pakistan, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis. By April 30, the cases had risen to 12, raising fears that the virus could spread, although no deaths have since been reported.
Local authorities took quick and direct steps to stop the spread of the virus. As an increase in cases was reported in neighboring Israel, mass gatherings were prohibited. The Health Ministry urged Gazans to wear masks, albeit without imposition.
Gaza authorities have also imposed a partial travel ban, and since late March those returning to Gaza must be quarantined for 21 days. To implement this policy, they established makeshift quarantine centers to house returnees:
– Asaad Hanna (@AsaadHannaa) March 24, 2020
Coronavirus quarantine center built in Gaza.
The Palestinian authorities closed all the mosques and imposed measures of social distancing. On April 23, a Palestinian was sentenced to six months in prison for violating quarantine measures.
In the West Bank, according to the Palestinian authorities, workers returning from Israel were the main source of contagion, accounting for almost one third of the confirmed cases. Nearly 150,000 Palestinians have returned to Palestinian territories and isolated themselves.
Coinciding with the start of the holy month of Ramadan on April 24, 8,000 workers returned from Israel through border posts, raising concerns about possible unreported cases. Local authorities took restrictive measures to limit movement and imposed two weeks of quarantine for those who cross the border with Israel.
Many workers found themselves out of work overnight due to the measures imposed and the closure of businesses. This had a direct impact on the poverty rate in the territories. According to local authorities, 53,000 Palestinians have fallen below the poverty line since Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Abbas announced a state of emergency on March 29.
Impoverished and densely populated areas are also a cause for concern. In the Gaza Strip, two million inhabitants are spread over more than 300 kilometers in the city of Jabaliyah, for example 115,000 people are huddled in an area of 2 kilometers. About 80% of the population depends on help from abroad and the unemployment rate is estimated at 40%.
One Gaza resident expressed the difficulty of the situation: “Usually we receive funds, donations and food, but this year everything will be different because of COVID.”
Local health workers are also concerned about the lack of equipment to deal with a possible outbreak. A health worker in Gaza noted:
We don't have enough hospitals, or ICU (intensive care unit) beds, or mechanical ventilators. I understand those facts.
We don't have enough hospitals, intensive care unit beds, or mechanical ventilators. I understand this data.
The lack of medical equipment is particularly acute in Gaza, with fewer than 100 ventilators, limited hospitals, and no beds in intensive care units. According to local authorities, Gaza has about 120 beds in intensive care units, but almost all of them are already occupied by patients not afflicted with COVID-19.
At a press conference, local authorities called on the international community for personal protective equipment and other medical supplies. Electric light is generally only available for half the day — limiting activity in hospitals.
Fill gaps exposed by COVID-19
The United Nations Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Middle East (UNRWA) has taken several steps to fill these gaps. On April 1, the organization began home delivery of food assistance to 240,000 families.
On April 14, Palestinian authorities launched an aid plan dedicated to poor households, funded in part by the European Union. As a result, 134 shekels (US $ 38.30) per person will be distributed. Adnan Abu Hasna, a UNRWA spokesman in Gaza, said they called for an emergency budget of $ 14 million to combat the coronavirus in all 58 Palestinian refugee camps. But so far, only 30% of that amount has been guaranteed.
A Palestinian company in Gaza started producing face masks and medical equipment in April. On April 7, the company had produced 150,000 masks and 5,000 gowns. Local distribution quickly spread to the West Bank, and the company is now directly selling masks to the State of Israel, which became its first customer.
Also in Gaza, the startup Tashkeel 3D has produced hundreds of medical face shields with 3D printers. Following requests from restaurant owners to local authorities, restaurants were allowed to reopen on April 29 as long as they follow distancing rules.
A flash of hope
In the midst of the crisis, cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities has been noted. Nikolay Mladenov, United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, recently noted that the COVID-19 situation is an “inspiring example of cooperation across conflict lines.”
As an occupying power, non-governmental organizations and local organizations have called on Israel to relax the blockade on hygiene items and to allow the free flow of essential cargo.
With nearly 15,147 cases and 198 deaths, Israel is undoubtedly seriously affected by the virus and is preparing for a potential second wave that arrives directly from the West Bank or the Gaza Strip.
On April 15, Israel's Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon promised a financial loan to the Palestinian territories, to “help them deal with the crisis.” Authorities are reviewing current measures with the United Nations to ensure that the revenue awarded by the Israeli authorities is not less than $ 137 million in the following four months.
On April 12, the Israeli Army implemented testing procedures at the Tzirfin Military Laboratory for Gaza citizens. However, due to lack of coordination, the Israeli government rejected the initiative.
The examples of cooperation cannot hide the tensions between the two governments.
On April 21, the newly formed Government of Israel officially affirmed its willingness to initiate the annexation of the West Bank. In response, the Palestinian authorities threatened to cancel all bilateral agreements between the two countries.
Hamas authorities overseeing the Gaza Strip also claimed that if Gaza did not receive the necessary medical equipment, it would “stop breathing” for six million Israelis, and threatened to launch an attack on Israel.
A deterioration in the political situation could negatively impact the COVID-19 crisis and directly impact civilians living in both territories. Those who live in Israel and Palestine now hang between hope and fear.