Sunday, November 29, 2020

Barghouthi: Israel and Trump Are Making the Pandemic Worse in Palestine


By Dr. Mustafa Barghouthi - October 06, 2020
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Section: [Main News] [Opinion]
Tags: [Trump] [Occupation] [Health Care]

In recent weeks, Palestinian health care workers in the West Bank and Gaza have seen an alarming rise in the number of Covid-19 cases after months of watching with mounting concern as the virus steadily spread next door in Israel. While we did not have more than 300 cases in April, that number has multiplied rapidly, reaching nearly 50,000 today.


Most Palestinian Covid-19 cases are a result of contact with Israelis, whether soldiers or settlers in the West Bank, while working inside Israel, or from visiting Palestinian citizens of Israel. The Palestinian Authority is currently locking down the areas of the West Bank it governs, but there is little Palestinians can do to prevent the entry of coronavirus because we don’t control our own borders or economy, leaving us at the mercy of Israel’s right-wing government and lawless settlers.


After initially taking aggressive action to contain the virus, Israel became lax and allowed the situation to spiral. To date, there have been more than 245,000 confirmed cases in Israel, with more than 1,500 fatalities. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s government has been widely criticized for its response. In the occupied Palestinian territories, there are more than 50,000 confirmed cases, with more than 360 deaths. Until now we have managed to cope, despite a lack of critical equipment like ventilators, but a further spike will overwhelm the Palestinian health care system and threatens to spread like wildfire in overcrowded refugee camps.


While the United States and other countries instituted lockdowns in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, we are unable to do so. The Israeli army, not Palestinians, decides who enters the West Bank. Jewish settlers are able to travel freely back and forth from Israel, bringing the virus with them, and some settlements have declared they won’t follow Israeli public health rules. At the outset of the pandemic, Israel insisted on maintaining the flow of Palestinian workers into Israel, fueling the spread of the virus into the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority tried hard to screen and monitor returning workers, but Israel maintained sole control of the passages without any serious screening measures. In two instances, Israeli police dumped Palestinian workers showing Covid-19 symptoms at a West Bank checkpoint without alerting Palestinian health authorities. With no pandemic bailout in Palestine and an anaemic economy due to Israeli restrictions on the movement of people and goods, Palestinians can’t stop working or they don’t eat.


To make matters worse, Israel has harassed Palestinians trying to contain the pandemic, preventing them from doing their work. In March, the Israeli army confiscated tents that were to be used as a coronavirus clinic in the West Bank town of Khirbet Ibziq and arrested non-Governmental Palestinian medical relief volunteers for distributing health education material in East Jerusalem. In April, Israel closed a coronavirus clinic in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, arresting its organizers. In some places, Israel locked down Jewish settlements but prevented Palestinians nearby from locking their towns down. If this weren’t enough, during this pandemic Israel destroyed nearly 400 Palestinian homes and sanitary facilities in the West Bank, making many families homeless.


Of extreme concern to Palestinian health officials right now is the rise in community transmission in Gaza, given the high population density, impoverished conditions, and shortages of medical equipment, clean water, and electricity, caused by Israel’s more than decade-long siege. Palestinians in Gaza are also unable to travel abroad to receive medical care, including some 8,000 cancer patients. At first, Israel’s siege actually slowed the entry of Covid-19 into Gaza, but now that it’s loose the conditions caused by the siege threaten to provide fertile ground for an outbreak. Gaza was pushed to the brink before the pandemic, now we fear complete disaster.


Exacerbating the situation are the funding cuts President Trump made to the UN agency responsible for the well-being of Palestinian refugees. Some 70% of Palestinians in Gaza are refugees who were forced out of their towns by Israel in 1948. Before Trump’s cuts, the US provided one-third of UNRWA funding and there is now a major budget shortfall, directly impacting those Palestinians who are most vulnerable.


Palestinians are enormously resourceful. Our vibrant civil society manages a number of primary health care centers and has mobilized thousands of volunteers to educate the public about Covid-19, including a campaign I led that distributed nearly a million educational pamphlets and social media messages. Without these efforts, the pandemic would have spread much further and faster. But there is only so much we can do, and we are held hostage by Israel.


In recent weeks, Trump has made grandiose claims that the deal his administration brokered normalizing relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain is a major step towards peace in the region. To the contrary, Israel’s actions during the pandemic prove it has no interest in making peace with the Palestinians, granting us our rights, or even allowing us to protect ourselves from Covid-19. After more than half a century of being held hostage by Israel and its occupation, the world must finally begin applying concrete pressure on Israel until we are free and able to control the most basic facets of our own lives, including protecting ourselves from Covid-19.

 

 


Dr. Mustafa Barghouti is President of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society and Secretary-General of the Palestinian National Initiative political party.



First published; Institute for Middle East Understanding

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