soon the whole affluent, temperate zone will burn like gaza

Adding pandemic to injury
Hana Adli, Electronic Intifada, Sep 24 2020

Nearly 8k Palestinians were injured during the 21 months of Great March of Return protests,
causing a health crisis in Gaza that has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
(Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA)

COVID-19 has hit Gaza hard in ways that are not always immediately obvious to the outside world. With Gaza’s authorities imposing new lockdowns and travel restrictions, adding to those imposed by Egypt and Israel, in response to a new and dangerous spike in virus cases since August, perhaps those who are hit the hardest are those waiting to go abroad for surgery. Many of those would-be patients were injured during the Great March of Return demonstrations occurring from Mar 2018 until Dec 2019. These saw unarmed protesters gather at the boundary between Gaza and Israel to demand a lifting of the siege against Gaza as well as to assert their right of return to their or their parents’ homes and villages from where they were forcibly removed in the Nakba of 1948-49. The Israeli military responded with lethal force. Snipers fired live bullets, some to kill, many deliberately to maim. The result is hundreds of injuries that cannot be treated in Gaza where, after nearly a decade and a half of an Israeli-imposed blockade, the needed health sector infrastructure is simply not available. Many of these patients today still await treatment, and now also find themselves hostage to a global pandemic that has further restricted their chances of getting medical attention abroad. Their plight has resulted not just in physical damage, but psychological, professional and personal harm. Ahmad Juha, 30, was injured during a demonstration in Sep 2018. Ahmad said:

I was protesting near the boundary with many others when a bullet exploded in my right leg.

Doctors and international organizations have documented several cases like Ahmad’s where bullets have left unusually large exit wounds. Locally, they are known as exploding bullets. And the damage they cause is often irreparable in Gaza. Ahmad has had several surgeries to his leg in local hospitals to avoid amputation. But all local attempts have so far failed. In a last-ditch attempt to save his leg, Médecins Sans Frontières arranged for him to travel out of Gaza in March. COVID-19 put paid to that hope. In June, doctors informed him that there was no hope to save his leg. He has still to sign the paper giving permission for the amputation, however. The pain, meanwhile, affects him day and night. He says:

You feel nothing but the pain. I’ve become moody because of the pain medicine.

It has affected his relationships. Injured and depressed, Ahmad is losing everything he once had. His marriage has not survived the strain, his children now live with his mother, and though he used to work at the Taboon, the most famous pizza restaurant in Gaza, he can no longer find work. Ahmad said:

The protests have stopped. I lost my leg, my job, and I can’t find a new job to afford a decent life for my two daughters.

According to MSF, more than 7,900 Palestinians were injured with live ammunition during the 21 months the Great March of Return protests lasted. MSF told The Electronic Intifada:

More than two years since the beginning of the protests, many of them still need follow-up surgery, extended treatment for infected wounds, and require long courses of rehabilitation and specialized care.

In a briefing paper from MSF, the organization noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has adversely affected any medical follow-up for injured Palestinians in Gaza. It says:

COVID-19 is making their excruciating recovery process even longer and harder, since many medical services and activities have been reduced or temporarily suspended.

MSF in Gaza has been trying to coordinate travel to Jordan through the Erez checkpoint to Israel, but the pandemic has prevented many from traveling. Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesperson for Gaza’s health ministry, told The Electronic Intifada that Israel’s long siege has “weakened our abilities and left us without many needed medicines and equipment.” Rida al-Banna, 46, is the mother of nine children. Her husband suffers severe mood swings and anger management issues that prevent him from working. The family depends on government support and aid from local non-governmental organizations to cover basic needs. Rida regularly attended the Great March of Return protests as a volunteer to help those who got injured. But she wound up as one of them, when she herself was shot in the leg during one protest in Dec 2018. Rida was supposed to travel to Luxembourg with MSF coordination to receive treatment, but this has been delayed due to the pandemic. For now, Rida has made connections with other people who were injured, as they try to support each other in municipal spaces. But that too has become harder. She told The Electronic Intifada:

We spend time here to avoid friction with our families. But social distancing rules have increased the pressure on us, and we can’t do any other activities at the moment.

Muhammad al-Bahtiti, 28, lives in the Shujaiya neighborhood of Gaza City. He was shot in his leg during a protest in May 2018. After nearly a year of treatment, doctors in Gaza decided the leg had to be amputated. He underwent the operation in Feb 2019. But rehabilitation took time and was eventually disrupted by the coronavirus. The constant pain made him difficult for others. To compound the problem, he is now in debt too. His family tried to help out, but that too caused friction. Muhammad was meant to have traveled to Amman in March, but fell foul of the lockdown. As a result, he needed further amputation. Another six centimeters were taken off his leg over the knee. Slowly, he is trying to put a life back together. He has started producing soap to sell from his home to market stalls. The former construction worker told The Electronic Intifada:

I was very stressed staying at home during lockdown. Clinic visits were restricted and I was doing physiotherapy sessions by myself, with doctors guiding me over the phone. It was the hardest thing during the pandemic. I was shouting at my wife and angry with my children all the time. My brothers couldn’t meet my debts while I only sat at home, and they started to blame me for going to the protest for nothing. I will do what I can to provide a life with dignity to my children. We don’t need much.

Jaber Suleiman, 28, was shot in 2018. He barely survived. He says:

After my injury I lost consciousness due to bleeding. The doctors decided to put me in the hospital morgue thinking I was dead. It was my father who discovered I was still alive, so the health ministry had me transferred to Ramallah.

But since his return, he was denied a travel permit by Israel seven times before the pandemic struck, he told The Electronic Intifada. Three weeks ago doctors amputated the lower part of his leg. Jaber, a resident of the Daraj neighborhood of Gaza City, was a casual day laborer before his injury, but he will be lucky to get any similar construction work once his treatment is complete. He, like thousands of others, is facing a harsh future, trapped as everyone in Gaza is by a hostile military occupation, an economy in ruins and a global pandemic.

Stranded in Gaza
Khuloud Rabah Salaiman, Electronic Intifada, Sep 25 2020

The Rafah crossing has mainly been closed this year.
Photo: Ashraf Amra/APA

Mahmoud Moussa has been stranded for much of this year. Until recently, he has lived in Oman, where he worked as a hospital radiologist. In February this year, Moussa and his family took a trip to Gaza, where he was born. He had hoped to spend a month with his parents in Gaza but his plans have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. For most people in Gaza, the only exit point to the rest of the world is by traveling via the Rafah crossing into Egypt. In response to the pandemic, that crossing has been mainly closed since Mar 15. After realizing that leaving Gaza was impossible, Moussa, 40, contacted his employers in Oman, who gave him a deadline for returning to work. The deadline was extended several times. But after six months had elapsed, Moussa was told that his contract had ended. He earned around $1.8k/month. Not only has he been deprived of a steady income, Moussa’s residency permit for Oman has now been cancelled. Moussa, his Egyptian wife and their three children had lived in Oman for 12 years. He had taken a $14k loan with an Omani bank two years ago as his wife needed eye surgery. So far he has repaid just $4k of that sum. He also owes back rent of approximately $1.5k. The Omani authorities have informed Moussa that he may re-enter the country. He is worried, however, that he may be arrested following his return because of his unpaid debts. He said:

My children are always asking me when we can go back to Oman, where they have been growing up. I don’t know how to answer that question. I just say, we will go back very soon.

Gaza’s inhabitants have few economic opportunities at home. Data published recently by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics put the unemployment rate in Gaza at 49% between Apr-Jun 2020. The data does not take into account an increase in unemployment since then. That resulted from a lockdown imposed in August when it was confirmed that COVID-19 had been detected outside of Gaza’s quarantine centers for the first time. Whenever it has been possible to leave Gaza in recent years, large numbers have emigrated. Building new lives abroad has generally meant that emigrants only visit friends and relatives in Gaza every once in a while. Lately, people who have come to Gaza for what they thought would be brief spells have found that they have been unable to leave. The Rafah crossing was briefly opened in August but only a limited number of people were allowed travel through it.Usama Hamad, who campaigns for the opening of the Rafah crossing, said:

These difficult circumstances are causing severe emotional stress, depression and despair for many Gazans.

Ruwaida Bashir has only seen her family in Gaza a few times since Israel placed it under a comprehensive siege 13 years ago. Making the journey from the UAE, where she now lives, can be a major ordeal as the Rafah crossing has been repeatedly closed throughout that period. Bashir made one of her rare visits in February this year, leaving her husband behind in the UAE city of Ajman. As her husband, aged 60, has restricted mobility due to a fractured pelvis, he depends on her considerably. Yet Bashir has been unable to return to him. Bashir’s residency documents for the UAE expired in August. To renew them will take at least three months. She had been receiving medical care in the UAE for a back complaint. The treatment she requires is not available in Gaza. She said:

I cannot wait another few months. I need to leave now because my health is getting worse.

Nael al-Draimli, 37, is the sole breadwinner for his family. His wife, their four children and his mother all depend on the wages he has made from working as a building site supervisor in the UAE. For that job, he was paid around $2k per month. Unable to reach the UAE, he is now unemployed. Earlier this year, al-Draimli paid a visit to Gaza, where he was raised, to undergo a medical procedure. He decided to do so as he did not have health insurance in the UAE. His stay in Gaza turned out to be much longer than he had anticipated. The Rafah crossing was closed following his arrival. His employers gave him a deadline to resume his job, which they extended more than once before ending his contract. He said:

That’s my luck, and I should accept it. But I don’t know how my family and I are going to live. We are depending on help from my relatives and my old colleagues at work. Sometimes we go into debt to provide for our basic needs.

He is worried that his children will not be able to attend school as he cannot afford their fees. The UAE only provides free education to children whose parents hold citizenship. Al-Draimli also fears arrest and imprisonment if he goes back as he owes about $3k in back rent. His family could have lost their home by now, were it not for a freeze on evictions introduced in response to the pandemic. He said:

They don’t know where they will go if they are evicted. They have friends in the UAE but they do not want to be a burden on them.

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