The West Bank Barrier in Bethlehem (Image taken from user ‘Tala Sarabtah’ on Wikimedia Commons)
Written by Ella Watharow
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all as countries around the world fight to adapt in these unprecedented times. But what about the things that haven’t changed? The residents of the Occupied Palestinian Territories have been suffering the effects of restricted movement for decades, and for many, the overarching sense of limitation is nothing new.
Initially, it seemed that the virus might provide a common enemy against which Israel and Palestine could join forces and fight together – and for a while it appeared they were doing just that. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Israel has been providing the Palestinian Authority (PA) with testing kits and face masks, with the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process referring to the cooperation between them as ‘excellent’. But of course, complex political situations do not spontaneously resolve themselves, which was poignantly exemplified by the PA’s rejection of aid from Saudi Arabia. The offering, having been flown directly to Ben Gurion airport, alluded to a normalisation of relations between Israel and the UAE, which has been perceived by a majority of Palestians as a ‘betrayal’. This is just one example of how a region’s ability to fight the virus can be impeded by long-standing political tensions.
Another example is the continuation of demolitions in Palestine. Despite calls to stop demolitions, human rights group B’tselem has reported that during the lockdown, Israel has in fact increased its rate of demolition. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, in August alone 205 people were left without a home – the highest number since the beginning of 2017. Combined with the fact that 98% of permit requests in Area C are rejected, it is no surprise that many Palestinians are being forced to find other accommodation, likely through sharing with friends and relatives, making it far more difficult to socially distance. This is compounded by the fact that Israel controls the water supply in Palestine, with taps frequently running dry, creating further sanitation problems.
The Gaza Strip has been put under particular strain by the COVID-19 outbreak. Even under normal circumstances, movement out of Gaza is prohibited except in ‘exceptional humanitarian cases’. However, during the pandemic, Israel has allowed Covid health personnel access into Gaza and has provided much needed medical supplies. Nonetheless, such measures are perhaps overshadowed by Gaza’s crumbling infrastructure and overwhelming population density. Many hospitals have been destroyed by air raids, and those that remain lack vital drugs and face frequent power cuts. As such, Gaza is dangerously unequipped to handle a health crisis of this magnitude, with Save the Children warning that ‘children’s lives hang in the balance’.
The limited resources of Gazan hospitals means that those requiring specialist care must seek help outside of Gaza. And for the thousands of patients waiting for exit permits, the coronavirus puts a level of added stress on the healthcare system that could prove fatal.
So, it seems that despite efforts to set politics aside during the pandemic, pre-existing issues have inevitably persisted throughout, often hampering the region’s efforts to fight the virus. With 633 additional cases on November 3rd alone, a second wave seems to be on the horizon, and things could be set to get a lot worse in the coming months.