01 April 2020

The wave of lockdowns around the world induced by the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis have again shone a light on the Occupied Gaza Strip in Palestine, with comparisons being made between the present global circumstances and Gaza’s extended state of occupation and siege.

But while the intent to remind the world about the situation in Gaza is commendable, there is a need to appreciate the vast differences between temporary COVID-19 lockdowns and the prolonged state of siege in Gaza.

The Israeli siege of the occupied Gaza Strip, in its current form, has been in place since June 2007, when Israel imposed an airtight land, sea and air blockade, isolating the enclave from the rest of the world. Israel controls Gaza’s airspace and territorial waters, as well as two of the three border crossing points; the third is controlled by Egypt.

In addition to the siege, Gaza – along with the West Bank and East Jerusalem – has been under illegal Israeli Occupation since 1967.

The cumulative effect of these factors as well as repeated Israeli military campaigns against the territory, has seen Gaza reaching a state of ‘unliveability’ as was predicted to occur this year in a 2012 United Nations forecast.

According to Michael Lynk, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories: “The prediction of unliveability has already arrived. The common measuring stick used by the UN or any other international organisation to be able to evaluate how people live is human dignity, and Gaza has been without human dignity for years now.”

At present, over 90% of Gaza’s drinking water is unfit for human consumption. Gaza has a 52% rate of unemployment and 70% of households are food insecure. Some poverty indicators point to almost 80% of the population being impoverished. Electricity blackouts for a significant percentage of the day are a daily occurrence. Gaza is further denied access to appropriate medical technology and the healthcare system is severely constrained and often at the brink of collapse. Drugs and medical personnel are in short supply.

Under such circumstances, it is hard to think of anywhere else in the world where the coronavirus could take a greater toll, per capita, than the Gaza Strip. Close to two million Palestinians are crammed into an area just 41 kilometres long, and from 6 to 12 kilometres wide, with a total area of 365 square kilometres. Most inhabitants are refugees and dependant on humanitarian aid.

Thus far, Gaza has reported a comparatively small number of coronavirus cases and the spread of the disease appears to be relatively contained. Authorities are also racing to build two massive quarantine facilities, situated on the territory’s northern and southern frontiers that will be able to hold up to 1000 people.

However, there is widespread fear the healthcare infrastructure of the Strip is woefully underprepared to handle any larger outbreak. A COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza could quickly overwhelm the healthcare system. Gaza has only 60 intensive care unit beds and 62 oxygen ventilators of which 15 are already being used on patients with other conditions. Serious concerns have also been raised that territory has nowhere near enough coronavirus testing kits to meet the needs of its population.

Compounded by years of siege and occupation, the arrival of coronavirus in Gaza thus raises the spectre of thousands of residents being condemned to a ‘death sentence’ in what is often described as the world’s largest open air prison.

Since the onset of 2020, the Palestine Information Network (PIN) has been raising awareness of the unliveability of Gaza through #Gaza2020, an awareness campaign to highlight the herculean challenges facing Palestinians living in the Occupied Gaza Strip, and the urgent need to affirm and restore the rights, hopes and dignity of these inhabitants. The choice of the onset of 2020 for the launching of this campaign was inspired by the leading question of the 2012 United Nations report that probed whether Gaza will be liveable in 2020.

The arrival of the coronavirus in Gaza should be cause to redouble this advocacy. What distinguishes the overall humanitarian crisis in Gaza from many other disasters, is that it is not the result of any natural phenomenon but is rather the product of an entirely man-made policy that could be fully avoidable.

Through #Gaza2020, PIN is calling for a concerted effort to highlight the gravity of ‘unliveability’ in Gaza and appeals for no effort to be spared in raising widespread awareness of this catastrophe and for initiating appropriate ventures that seek to restore the rights and prioritise the dignity of its besieged inhabitants.

#Gaza2020 Unliveable campaign information available here: https://palestineinfo.org/gaza-2020/