Coronavirus, but Israelis Keep Vulnerable Gaza as Largest Open Air Prison

California prisons are releasing prisoners for fear that the crowded conditions in penitentiaries could prove deadly breeding grounds for the novel coronavirus.

There are 2 million prisoners, most of them not adults, however, who won’t be let out of prison despite the dangers of over-crowding and externally dictated inadequate health facilities. They are the people of the Palestinian Gaza Strip, with a population size similar to Houston.

AFP reports that the two million Palestinians in Gaza only have 60 ICU or intensive care beds, and not all of them are functional. The israeli blockade, which disallows importation of many key goods, has devastated the health care system in the Strip. In Palestine over all, there are only 1.2 hospital beds per 1,000 people. Compare to Germany with 8.3 beds per thousand people.

Health statistics are already bad in the Strip. Children suffer from poor nutrition. Its sole aquifer is polluted and sea water is seeping in, so that 90 percent of the water is undrinkable.

California prisons would be paradise next to a Gaza Strip being ravaged by Covid-19.

Jamal al-Khudari, head of Palestinians against the siege, has demanded that the Israeli blockade on the Strip be lifted and that the UN Relief and Works Agency, which provides medical and educational aid to Palestinians, be refunded by the US (Trump slashed the organization’s funding).

Because the Israelis destroyed Gaza’s airport and won’t let its port operate, and restrict overland travel out of the Strip, Gaza is somewhat isolated and has not yet reported any virus cases. People do manage to travel in and out of the Strip, however, through Israeli or Egyptian checkpoints, and the likelihood is that at some point one will bring in the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

The Palestinian health authority has put 637 persons returning recently from abroad under a two-week quarantine. Its officials say that no case of Covid-19 has so far been reported in the Strip. But with hundreds of returnees, there is a danger that their quarantine will be partial and that some are carriers, maybe even asymptomatic ones. People live in extended families in crowded conditions, so I’m not sure what a “quarantine” would consist of.

West Bank Palestinian authorities have announced 36 coronavirus cases in Bethlehem.

The World Health Organization reports:

    “Life expectancy at birth for Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory was 73.8 years in 2017.5In the same year, infant mortality for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip was reported to be 10.7per 1000 live births and under-5 mortality was 12.1 per 1000.5Health inequalities exist, with worse health indicators for some populations, such as those in Area C of the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip,compared to the Palestinian average. For example, rates of stunting in Palestinian children living in the Jordan Valley in the West Bank were found to be 23% in Bedouin communities, compared to 10% in villages and 9% in UNRWA refugee camps.There are also health inequalities between the Palestinian population and the 611000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank.6Life expectancy at birth in Israel, which includes the Israeli settler population in the West Bank, is approximately nine years higher than it is for Palestinians living in the same territory, for the same year.”

Doesn’t sound promising to me.

Gaza had been a prosperous agricultural and trade center in the nineteenth century, connected to Egypt and to the Levant. Since 1967 it has been an Israeli colony. Since 2007 Israel, the Occupying Power, has put its inhabitants under an illegal blockade (illegal because under the Geneva Conventions, civilian noncombatants cannot have their lifeways substantially changed by the Occupiers). This step came because the fundamentalist party, Hamas, won the 2006 elections sponsored by the US and Israel. The following year the US and Israel tried to undo the results by conniving at a coup in the West Bank, which succeeded in bringing the secular PLO to power. But the attempt at a coup failed in Gaza, where Hamas remained in power. Most Western journalists tell this story bass-ackwards, accusing Hamas of “seizing power.”

Israeli authorities propagandistically point to the thousands of small homemade rockets that have struck Israel from Gaza in the past 13 years, but don’t mention that only a handful of them hit anything. All life is precious, and the 27 Israelis killed by those rockets from 2004 to 2014 are victims of war crimes by Palestinian groups (Hamas is just one). But Israelis in that period killed thousands of Palestinians in Gaza. Btselem found that from 2000 to 2014, Israel killed 7,065 Palestinians over all (including in the West Bank), while Palestinians were responsible for about a 7th of that number of Israeli deaths. In the past two years, Israeli snipers have just been shooting down protesting Palestinians in Gaza like fish in a barrel, killing over 200 (including children, women, journalists and medics, and unarmed demonstrators), and wounding thousands.

Moreover, if this conflict is set in history, one discovers that 70 percent of the families in Gaza were driven out of their homes in what is now southern Israel, to live in squalid refugee camps. Many could walk back home if they were not caged by the Israelis who stole their property without giving them any compensation.

Gaza has been de-developed by the Israelis, who have worked out complex ways of denying Palestinians there a humane quality of life while not provoking a deadly famine that would attract global condemnation. At one point the Israeli military even figured how many calories it would take to keep the Palestinians barely alive, and planned only to let in that much food. No chocolates would be allowed to the children. I was once talking to a liberal Jewish American and I explained this war crime, and the individual went off on me. They want to kill us, this person said. Why should they have their food? I was taken aback by the vehemence. This was someone who really minded the Bush occupation of Iraq, but could not see the similarity to the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.

Of course, since most people in Gaza are children, they aren’t actually trying to kill anyone. There are militants in Gaza, but under international law you cannot deal with militants by punishing a whole civilian, noncombatant population.

If the pandemic hits Gaza and the Israelis continue their blockade, that will be yet another war crime visited on the Palestinian people.

Bonus Video:

Al Jazeera English: “Gaza prepares for potential coronavirus outbreak”

Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on March 21, 2020, on Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion, a website featuring commentary by Professor Juan Cole.  It was reproduced here with the consent of Professor Cole.


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