FRESH AIR

Gaza and the misuse of the coronavirus emergency 

Apr 7, 2020 | Judy Maynard

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Australian and international apologists for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad and other Islamist groups operating in the Gaza Strip are exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to launch a propaganda campaign against Israel under the guise of humanitarian concern for the people of Gaza. 

The Australian Palestine Advocacy Network (APAN), supported by the Australasian Muslim Times (AMUST), demands that Israel must provide what Gazans need to fight this crisis – as the Occupying power it is Israel’s responsibility. Israel has maintained a crippling blockade over Gaza for 13 years, and the lives of the 1.8 million people who are locked within its borders already live on the brink of survival. It is chronically short of medicines and equipment. This follows similar calls from foreign NGOs that regularly vilify Israel, such as Human Rights Watch, Jewish Voices for Peace, and BTselem. 

The aims of the campaign are two-fold: 1. to use the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext for pressuring Israel to end its blockade of Gaza, something these groups have sought for many years and 2. to distract from the criminal neglect of the local health system by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, whose responsibility it is, and prepare to shift the blame on Israel should catastrophe strike as a result of that neglect. 

The poor situation of Gaza’s health system in general is, of course, undeniable, as is the potential for a disaster if coronavirus takes hold on a large scale in Gaza. 

Yet this opportunistic campaign resorts to the usual fictions to vilify Israel while averting attention from the Palestinian leadership, absolving them of responsibility and denying them any agency. It professes to be motivated by concern for the welfare of Gazans, yet fails to question why, despite receiving billions of dollars in international humanitarian aid, Gaza’s critical infrastructure including hospitals and medical facilities has been deprived of funding. It ignores the misappropriation of humanitarian aid, and the very tangible evidence of this in the shape of rockets, incendiary devices and terror tunnels that are used to attack Israel. 

Israel does not occupy and has no presence in the Gaza Strip, having disengaged in 2005. After bitter in-fighting between Fatah and Hamas the territory has been governed by the latter since 2007, so claiming Israel remains the “occupying power” responsible for looking after Gazans is absurd. 

Myths and Facts about the Blockade 

Israel’s blockade is a response to the aggression of Hamas and other Islamist groups, and aims at preventing the smuggling in of weapons, materials for constructing terrorist infrastructure and terrorists. About this threat APAN is mute, as it is about the fact that Egypt also imposes a blockade on its border with Gaza. Even though Egypt has offered no assistance to Gaza in the current crisis, Israel’s opponents are not interested in criticising Egypt, only Israel. 

Furthermore, Israel’s blockade has never included medicines, or most medical equipment – with the exception of a few machines with dual-use military purposes, mainly x-ray machines, as the New York Times acknowledged in a 2016 correction.  

According to the IDF’s Division for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Israel sent 2,547 truckloads of supplies into Gaza, including 206 tons of medical supplies, over the week of Mar. 15-21 alone. Another 145 tons of medical supplies were transferred the subsequent week.  

Special shipments of material to deal with the COVID-19 crisis continue, according to COGAT: 

  • March 18 – “hundreds of #COVID19 testing kits, along with hundreds of protective suits and masks for medical teams, were transferred to Gaza through the Erez Crossing in coordination with COGAT.”
  • March 21 – “hundreds of additional #coronavirus testing kits were transferred into #Gaza.” 
  • March 27 – “1,000 of the coronavirus testing kits that were transferred were forwarded by the @WHO into the #Gaza Strip with the coordination” of COGAT.  
  • April 1 – “COGAT’s Gaza CLA coordinated the transfer of medical equipment and laboratory materials through the Erez Crossing to Gaza, at the request of the @WHO, which are needed to carry out hundreds of tests to identify and detect coronavirus among patients.” 
  • April 3 – “COGAT’s Gaza CLA coordinated the transfer of 1,500 testing swabs to Gaza via the Erez Crossing. The swabs are used to test patients for #COVIDー19 and were donated by the @WHO” 

Despite the blockade, the entry into Gaza of humanitarian aid has not always been welcomed. In May 2018, following clashes on the Israel-Gaza border and the ensuing medical shortages, the Israel Defense Forces coordinated the transfer of eight truckloads of vital medical equipment to the Gaza Strip. Four truckloads of aid supplied by the Palestinian Authority and two by UNICEF were accepted, but two truckloads provided by the IDF were rejected by Hamas when the source of the aid was learnt.  

Favouring such grandstanding over the welfare of Gazans is unsurprising from an organisation like Hamas, which extols martyrdom and has repeatedly shown itself more than willing to use its own people as human shields for propaganda and defensive purposes when launching attacks on Israel. 

UN Praise 

Comprehensively undermining APAN’s latest disinformation campaign is the recent statement from the UN, a body notoriously hostile to the Jewish state, which praises the “excellent” coordination between Israeli and Palestinian authorities in reacting to the pandemic. 

Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, made the comments during a telephone conversation on 26 March with other members of the Middle East Quartet (UN, EU, USA and Russia) in which he gave a detailed briefing on the UN COVID-19 response plan, with particular emphasis on Gaza 

The statement, released the following day, said, “Israeli and Palestinian authorities are continuing to coordinate their responses closely and constructively, which is a major factor in the level of disease containment achieved so far.” Israel had “allowed the entry of critical supplies and equipment into Gaza: examples of critical supplies include swabs for collection of samples and other laboratory supplies required for COVID-19 testing, and Personal Protective Equipment to protect health workers.” The statement also noted Israel’s cooperation in allowing health workers and other personnel involved in the COVID-19 response to move in and out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. 

Mladenov reiterated these comments a few days later via video conference to the UN Security Council’s monthly meeting on the Middle East. 

PA responsibility 

It is actually the Palestinian Authority that is responsible for purchasing and supplying medicines and medical supplies for Gaza. However, from 2017 on, the PA imposed sanctions on Hamas-ruled Gaza which severely impacted the already under-supplied health system there. As the UN’s Organisation for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported in late 2017: 

By December 2017, 44 per cent of essential medicines and 28 per cent of essential disposables at the MoH’s Central Drug Storage in Gaza were at zero stock, which is defined as less than one month’s supply. The PA is responsible for the funding, purchase and delivery of medicines from the West Bank to government hospitals and clinics in the Gaza Strip. The escalation in internal Palestinian divisions in March 2017 led to a decline in deliveries from the West Bank and the gradual rise in the percentage of essential medicines at zero stock… 

Yet PA neglect of Gaza’s health system predates even that dispute, with Ashraf al-Qudra, spokesman for the Gaza Ministry of Health, telling Al-Monitor in 2015: 

“The Ministry of Health under the consensus government should transfer 40% of its medicine in Ramallah, most of which is provided by international parties, to the Gaza Strip, while 60% remains for the West Bank. However, only around 5% to 7% actually reaches the strip.” 

Some critics, including Australian academic Amin Saikal, imply that Israel has withheld ventilators which have been critical in the fight against the pandemic. On March 26 Saikal tweeted:

“Covid-19: 2 million people of Gaza are forced to cope with tragic conditions under Israeli blockade with only 62 ventilators and 200 Covid test kits. Blockade must be lifted to let Gazans receive outside assistance to avoid unnecessary deaths.”

This is disingenuous, as it is clear from news reports that there is a shortage of these world-wide, including in the US. Like most nations Israel has insufficient for its own needs, and Israel currently has 8000 coronavirus cases while Gaza currently has less than 20 known cases.  

Israel is making extraordinary efforts to produce more. Similar efforts are being undertaken by a team of engineers and doctors at al-Quds University in the West Bank. Such efforts will have been assisted by the announcement on April 1 from the Israel division of medical device company Medtronic that it is making available for free the blueprints for its ventilators to companies wishing to manufacture them. 

Criticism of Israel that it is withholding assistance to Palestinians is fundamentally illogical. As an Israeli official put it, bacteria and viruses do not stop at the border and the spread of the dangerous virus in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] can also jeopardise the health of the residents of Israel.  

Another of APAN’s assertions that the people of Gaza are “locked within its borders” – repeats the well-worn “Gaza is a prison” cliché, but is belied by the fact that the first cases of coronavirus detected in Gaza were two men who had returned from a 250,000-strong religious gathering in Lahore, Pakistan, in March. They, together with a further 1,300 or so other returnees from various parts, have ended up in quarantine in Gaza. 

Gazan leaders, meanwhile, continue as before, threatening Israel even while the pandemic rages. 

On 27 March a rocket attack was launched at Israel from Gaza, causing no damage or injury, but sparking a retaliatory strike against Hamas targets. 

A few days later Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar gave an interview to Hamas’s Al-Aqsa TV and Shehab News Agency, in which he threatened the mass murder of Israelis if Gazans had insufficient ventilators, while simultaneously embracing the self-sabotaging policy of anti-normalisation:

As for the question about whether we need them to give us anything – we don’t need anything from the occupation...But I say this loud and clear: God forbid, if a time comes when we have no choice but to watch our citizens breathe their final breaths, and when there are no ventilators – I say to [Israeli Defence Minister] Bennett that we will make six million Israeli settlers unable to breathe. 

Rather than seek cooperation to improve the welfare of their people Hamas and other groups choose to escalate tensions, thus militating against a lifting of the blockade. 

APAN and its ilk do not condemn threats emanating from Gaza nor its leadership which actively demonstrates a commitment to eliminating the Jewish state that ranks higher than saving the populace from an imminent crisis. For them, there is only ever one target: Israel.  

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