gaza: quarantine is a joke

Facing an invisible enemy in Gaza
Sarah Algherbawi, Electronic Intifada, Apr 2 2020

Gaza Strip, Mar 30. Photo: Ahmad Hasaballah

I’m writing this article in the second week of isolation. Coronavirus arrived in Gaza on Mar 22, when news broke that it had been detected in two people who were returning from Pakistan. Since then, and at time of writing, ten more cases have been reported, all so far among people in quarantine. The Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated parts of the world. Its health care system has been fatally undermined by more than a decade of Israeli-imposed sanctions and blockade. Human rights activists and health experts fear a humanitarian disaster should the pandemic take hold here. We began taking isolation measures even before we had confirmed cases. But then, long before anyone had ever heard of this coronavirus, we, in Gaza, had already been forced to practice “social” or as we are bid to call it now “physical distancing.” In our case, from the rest of the world. Israel’s blockade of Gaza is nearly 13 years old. Ours is a very young population. More than half a million of Gaza’s two million people will have known nothing else but the hardship and isolation foisted on them by an overwhelming and preening military force that bombs and kills at will. As such, we are all used to spending time indoors, unable to go out for fear of deadly consequences. During the last major Israeli aggression in 2014, I stayed home for 51 days as the bombs and missiles hailed down over us wreaking death and destruction. On day 42, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I was living with my parents then. I asked my father to take me on a walk even if just for a few minutes. At first, he refused, fearing for our safety. But when he noticed my urgency and insistence, he reluctantly agreed. We walked around our neighborhood, eastern Gaza City, for maybe 15 minutes. I wanted fresh air but found it mixed with the smell of gunpowder. The sky wasn’t clear of military aircraft. But I savored every moment. This time, the isolation is different. This time it’s silent.

This time, I don’t feel that I have a choice to break my isolation. I am a mother of two now. My responsibility is to stay home no matter what. And I cannot help but feel that the lockdown that the coronavirus has visited upon large parts of the world is showing everyone a little of what life is like in Gaza. Unable to visit foreign countries or travel by plane? Welcome to Gaza. I am almost 29 and I’ve never flown. Not allowed to move more than a few kilometers from your home at risk of the wrath of the authorities? Welcome to tiny Gaza, where boundaries on land and sea are enforced by a military, or militaries, as Egypt’s military is also involved, that has no compunction in using deadly force to prevent such movement. Unable to go to any hospital because the health system is overwhelmed with emergencies. Welcome to Gaza, 2008-09, 2012, 2014. Now. Worried about the supply of medicines, clean water, food and the power supply? Welcome to Gaza, where half of all vital medicines are simply not available, according to the ministry of health here, and half are at less than a month’s stock, according to the UN. Welcome to Gaza, where most tap water is unfit for human consumption, where some 70% of the population is food insecure, and where electricity is available intermittently. If the world’s most advanced health care systems can’t deal with the pandemic, imagine what it is like for the majority of the world, where health systems are not so developed. Then add in military occupation. Welcome to Gaza. For me, there is one big difference between the coronavirus lockdown and that imposed by the Israeli occupation, however: The virus is invisible. But the consequences of Israel’s blockade are plain for all to see. See, mind you. Not feel. It is felt just by us in Gaza. Until now. Perhaps.

The authorities here have tried to prepare as best they can. Those few who could enter Gaza from outside were placed in quarantine as far back as Mar 15. Those who have tested positive have been isolated. The rest of us are on lockdown. But the health ministry is painfully aware of the shortfalls. The real fear, Ashraf al-Qedra, a ministry spox, told EI “is the lack of resources: medicine, protective equipment, respiratory devices, laboratory supplies and sterilization tools.” According to the UN, the capacity of the Palestinian health system generally to deal with the “expected” spread of the pandemic is “severely limited,” particularly in Gaza. The ministry in Gaza has launched an international appeal for $23m in emergency support. The UN has calculated the moving target of Palestinian needs generally, as of Mar 26, at $34m. In the meantime, with educational facilities closed, the ministry has sequestered school buildings to use as quarantine centers. According to al-Qedra, more than 1,700 people are currently in quarantine of which nearly 1,000 need medical care. 3% of Gaza’s population is over 65 and among those most vulnerable. Nearly eight percent suffer hypertension and diabetes, al-Qedra said. Perhaps almost as problematic as the health sector is the general economic situation in Gaza.

Nearly 50% of Gaza’s population was already unemployed, while over 50 percent fell below official poverty levels. Now, Gaza’s many casual laborers, who barely had enough to start with, have seen their income drop to zero almost overnight. Former Palestinian Authority employees are also struggling. In 2017, the PA cut salaries of these people in half. Now, like a friend who did not want to give his name, they are hardly able to afford food. I might be among the lucky people in Gaza. I have so far been able to buy food, non-food items, and sterilizing alcohol and soap. And of course, there is no safeguarding against a lack of consideration or education. While I and everyone I know are self-isolating, some are not. One look at social media and I see many who continue to gather with friends or family, even arranging weddings at home. It has to be at home, the wedding halls are all closed. I look out my window and I see boys playing in the street like they were on holiday. Such negligenceworries me. Some caused by a need to work, some, perhaps, just a result of not taking this invisible enemy seriously in a place where deadly threats have an all-too familiar and visible face. I feel we may have to suffer isolation for a long time yet. As far back as 2012, the UN warned that Gaza could become unlivable by 2020. It seems 2020 has its own plans, not just for Gaza, but for the whole world.

Palestine in Pictures: March 2020
Electronic Intifada, Apr 1 2020

MAGAV at a checkpoint at the Damascus Gate to ​Jerusalem’s Old City, Mar 26. Photo: Oren Ziv/ ActiveStills

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during March did not spare Palestinians from Israel’s violations of their rights. There were 134 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip as of Apr 1. The sole fatality reported by Palestinian authorities in those territories was a woman in the West Bank village of Biddu, who was infected by her son who works in Israel. A large number of the Palestinians who tested positive for the coronavirus “were infected during work in Israel or Israeli settlements in the West Bank,” according to Euro-Med Monitor. Twelve coronavirus patients were in quarantine in Gaza as of Mar 31 and there has been no reports of community spread among the general population so far. UN OCHA said:

The capacity of the Palestinian health system to cope with an expected increase in patients remains severely impaired by long-standing challenges and critical shortages, particularly in the Gaza Strip.

Human rights groups also warned of the potential spread of COVID-19 among the more than 4,500 Palestinians held in overcrowded Israeli prisons and detention centers. The Palestinian human rights group Addameer stated on Apr 1 that a former Palestinian prisoner who was arrested by Israel on Mar 18, held at Ofer prison in the West Bank, and released on Mar 31 tested positive for the coronavirus. Israel has reported more than 5,100 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 21 deaths. PM Netanyahu has consolidated his control as the country reels from the outbreak. There have been more than 823,600 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide and some 40,600 deaths. According to UN OCHA, the relatively low number of confirmed cases in the Palestinian territories “may reflect the limited testing capacity.” IOF killed two Palestinians in the West Bank during the month amid the pandemic. Muhammad Abd’el-Rahim Hamayel, 15, died after he was shot in the head with live ammunition fired by Israeli soldiers in Beita village near the city of Nablus on Mar 11. The teenager was injured in the early morning hours as villagers confronted Israeli forces accompanying a group of Israeli settlers touring a nearby archaeological site. He is the second Palestinian child killed by Israeli forces so far this year. The second Palestinian killed during the month, Sufian Khawaja, was shot in the head in the West Bank village of Nilin on 22 March. The IOF claimed that Khawaja was hurling stones at vehicles when he was shot dead. Israel is withholding Khawaja’s body. IOF continued to raid Palestinian communities in the West Bank as they struggled to hold back the threat from the coronavirus pandemic. Soldiers also demolished and seized structures meant for a field clinic in the West Bank’s Jordan Valley. Human rights groups said that Israel’s heightened restrictions amid the coronavirus are hindering their ability to monitor and document violations of Palestinians’ rights. The first picture shows Abd’el-Rahman Shtaiwi, 9, with his mother at their home in the northern West Bank village of Kafr Qaddum, Mar 3. The child was shot in the head with live ammunition fired by IOF in the village in July last year and remains immobile and unable to speak.

Abd’el-Rahman Shtaiwi, Kafr Qaddum, Mar 3. Photo: Keren Manor/ActiveStills

Ruins of restaurant demolished by IOF, Beit Jala, Mar 4. Photo: Ahmed Mezher/WAFA

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Mar 5. Photo: Abed’al-Rahman Hassan/APA

Limb reconstruction center, Khan Younis, Mar 5. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Aftermath of an explosion in a market in Nuseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, Mar 5. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

At least 16 people suffered fatal injuries as a result of the fire, including six children. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Mai Qudaih picks tomatoes at her farm in Khan Younis, Mar 8. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

MAGAV at al-Walaja checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Mar 10. Photo: Oren Ziv/ActiveStills

Purim on Shuhada Street, Hebron, Mar 10. Photo: Oren Ziv/ActiveStills

Funeral of 15-year-old Muhammad Hamayel shot by IOF, Beita, Nablus, Mar 11. Photo: Shadi Jarar’ah/APA

An electronic lesson, Gaza City, Mar 15. Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour/APA

Al-Aqsa mosque, Mar 15. Photo: Muhammed Qarout Idkaidek/APA

Eyal military checkpoint, Qalqilya, Mar 16. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/ActiveStills

Factory in Gaza City, Mar 17. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

UNRWA clinic, Gaza city, Mar 18. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Quarantine center in converted school, Deir al-Balah, Gaza Strip, Mar 21. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Gaza City wedding hall, Mar 22. Photo: Yasser Qudih/APA

Brukhin settlement, Mar 22. Photo: Ahmad Al-Bazz/ActiveStills

Gaza City beach, Mar 25. Photo: Mohammed Zaanoun/ActiveStills

Quarantine center in converted school, Gaza City, Mar 26. Photo: Mohammed Zaanoun/ActiveStills

Damascus Gate. Mar 27. Photo: Oren Ziv/ActiveStills

Gaza City, Mar 27. Photo: Mahmoud Ajjour/APA

Sewing factory, Gaza City. Mar 28. Photo: Mohammed Zaanoun/ActiveStills

Mural in Khan Younis, Mar 28. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Nablus under lockdown, Mar 29. Photo: Shadi Jarar’ah/APA

Almond harvest, Khan Younis, Mar 29. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Al-Bureij refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Mar 30. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Land Day, Israel boundary east of Gaza City, Mar 30. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Coronavirus cakes, Khan Younis, Mar 31. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

UNRWA staff, Gaza Strip, Mar 31. Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA


  1. traducteur
    Posted April 5, 2020 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    In the third photograph from the end, the signs they are holding read, ‘Palestine endures, the occupation will disappear.’ Amen!

  2. niqnaq
    Posted April 5, 2020 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    thanks for that. i second your emotion.

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