Defeating covid-19 in Gaza: Is it enough?

Urgent intervention can mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic. But the EU should also help Gaza escape its man-made crisis.

With its number of coronavirus infections slowly ticking up, the Gaza Strip is bracing for what could become a cataclysmic outbreak. As Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, the virus could rapidly spread through its 1.8 million residents, threatening high fatality rates as it overwhelms a debilitated healthcare system. This would exacerbate the underlying humanitarian crisis that has gripped Gaza for years, accelerating its socio-economic collapse and potentially rekindling large-scale conflict with Israel.

Measures to prevent a serious coronavirus outbreak in Gaza are imperative for not just public health and humanitarian reasons but also for conflict prevention. The situation is further complicated by the animosity between the main political actors in Gaza: Hamas (which runs the area), Fatah (which controls the Palestinian Authority, or PA), and Israel (which is the occupying power). The deeply dysfunctional dynamics that they have created are the root cause of Gaza’s ills, effectively trapping its residents in an open-ended cycle of crisis and conflict that has lasted for more than a decade. Left unaddressed, these political dynamics could undermine a narrowly focused intervention to fight the coronavirus, thereby limiting Gaza’s recovery.

As there is no way to swiftly resolve the entrenched hostility between these actors, doing so should not be a pre-condition for providing urgent humanitarian relief to Gaza. Nevertheless, efforts to deal with the coronavirus will require, and could even incentivise, these actors to take a constructive approach to address a common threat.

For now, Hamas and Israel are cooperating relatively effectively at the working level to contain the spread of the virus in Gaza. Israel has, for instance, allowed in coronavirus-related materials sourced from international donors, along with testing kits provided by the Israeli army. While the United Nations has been an important facilitator in this regard, there has also been direct engagement between Israeli and Palestinian healthcare experts.

The EU should use its current mechanisms for cooperation to try to increase support for Gaza’s socio-economic recovery in the long term

The European Union should shore up this kind of practical cooperation between the parties. Working with the UN, the EU should seize the opportunity to quickly supply Gaza with additional ventilators, intensive care beds, protective equipment, and testing kits. While its no-contact policy on Hamas remains immovable for now, the EU should at least provide legal protection to European aid organisations that engage with the Hamas-controlled authorities in Gaza, to implement vital humanitarian projects.

All parties should focus on containing the spread of the virus and increasing the healthcare system’s capacity to treat those who have been infected. Gaza presents unique challenges in this regard. Even before the outbreak, the World Health Organisation had warned that Gaza’s healthcare system was “on the brink of collapse”. At present, the area only has approximately 78 intensive care beds and 63 ventilators. According to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, the area needs 140 ICU beds and 100 ventilators. In addition, many of the most effective strategies for mitigating the spread of the virus – such as curfews, social distancing, and quarantines – will be difficult to successfully implement in one of the most densely populated areas in the world. Issues such as food insecurity, a lack of safe drinking water and sanitation facilities, mental health issues, and limited electricity supplies present further difficulties.

To enhance Palestinians’ ability to cope with the outbreak, the UN has launched a joint $34m covid-19 response plan, which it will implement with international humanitarian organisations in the West Bank and Gaza. The three-month plan is designed to prevent the transmission of the virus, provide adequate care for patients, and mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic. The United Kingdom, Ireland and the European Commission are, at the time of writing, the only sources of European funds. With 14 percent of the plan still to be funded, the EU and Gulf states must continue to finance and otherwise support this initiative. (Separately, the bloc has brought forward its €82m annual contribution to the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East).

Here, the EU must address the fundamental issue of Israel’s responsibilities as the occupying power in Gaza and the architect of a decades-long siege against the area’s Palestinian inhabitants. Europeans should press Israel to make financial contributions to Gaza and to allow all vital humanitarian aid into the area. These include materials for the construction and maintenance of water and sanitation projects, which are central to the fight against the coronavirus. In addition, Israel should increase the number of referrals of Gazan patients to hospitals in East Jerusalem and Israel, to reduce the burden on Gaza’s healthcare facilities.

Beyond the immediate crisis, the EU should use its current mechanisms for cooperation to try to increase support for Gaza’s socio-economic recovery in the long term, by breaking the man-made constraints that have prevented its recovery. This approach could strengthen Egyptian and UN efforts to anchor a fragile ceasefire arrangement between Hamas and Israel, and provide a means to back Palestinian reunifications efforts. Both tracks are fundamental to Gaza’s future.

In Gaza, as elsewhere, the coronavirus has precipitated an economic downturn. While all sectors in Gaza are likely to suffer to varying degrees, the thousands of Palestinian workers who commute to Israel every day are most at risk. With unemployment hovering at around 43 percent, the downturn could have a major impact on Gaza’s crippled economy, adding to the substantial financial strain already felt by many families living there. This could, in turn, have negative repercussions for Gaza’s stability – not least by undermining the current ceasefire arrangement between Hamas and Israel (which is largely predicated on socio-economic improvements in the area).

Although it is likely impossible to prevent such pain in the short term, local actors and international donors should start to lay the groundwork for a post-coronavirus economic recovery. Expanding the cash-for-work scheme run by the UN and Qatar is one element of this. Israel must also shoulder its responsibilities. At a minimum, in the short term, the country should increase the number of permits it grants to Palestinian workers and relax its disproportionately severe restrictions on Gazan trade. This would have the additional benefit of acting as a confidence-building measure in Israel’s ceasefire talks with Hamas.

By all accounts, the PA has done a commendable job fighting covid-19 in the West Bank, but it must step up its support for Gaza, by helping facilitate international efforts to improve the area’s collapsing energy, water, and healthcare infrastructure. As part of this, the authority should roll back all the sanctions it has imposed on Gaza since March 2017, including those related to the provision of electricity. This would have the added benefit of reducing Gaza’s drift away from the West Bank and PA control.

Unfortunately, there is no panacea for Gaza. Urgent intervention can mitigate the worst effects of the pandemic and save hundreds (if not thousands) of lives. But, once this threat has receded, Palestinians living in Gaza will once again find themselves trapped in increasingly unliveable conditions. In shaping their response to the emergency, and pushing local actors to fulfil their responsibilities, the EU and other international donors should help put Gaza on a more sustainable path.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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