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Gaza faces a lockdown that will outlast Covid

by
16 April 2021

Poverty and restricted freedoms are a daily reality for the Palestinians in this overcrowded land, says William Bell

AS A working parent who is “home-schooling” teenagers, and the husband of a public-health consultant working flat out to protect us all from Covid-19, I find that life has become challenging in ways that a year ago I hadn’t contemplated. Tempers fray, stress lingers below the surface, and frustration takes its toll.

In normal times, we know that our children will receive an education — probably not a perfect one, but they go to school, and possibly on to higher education. When the standards are not good enough, we know who to complain to, or how to support them.

If we fall ill and require urgent care or treatment, we know that our NHS will be there. Waiting lists for non-life-threatening operations may be long, and investment rarely matches demand, whoever is in power, but it is an institution that most of us cherish and defend.

And, while the welfare system often fails to address the indignity that people endure when they lose their jobs or are unable to work, we know that the system meets at least some of our vital needs.

The lockdown era has shaken these “certainties” and rudely reminded us that we are not infallible — not least because this fabric that weaves us together and protects us when we are at our weakest is not there by accident, and can quickly unravel.

Cooped up at home, some of us on furlough, coping with children who have “given up”, perhaps lonely having not been out for a year because of shielding, or even facing a cancer diagnosis when hospitals are on the point of collapse owing to Covid, we are being unprecedentedly challenged. With the onset of spring, vaccines and the impending lifting of restrictions, however, we can dare to imagine an end to this nightmare, and we have the tools to build back better.

 

THE Palestinian population of Gaza is not so fortunate. Decades of occupation meant that the health systems on which Palestinians in Gaza rely were unprepared for the global Covid-19 emergency. Since the beginning of the crisis, overcrowding, poverty, inadequate clean water, and lack of hygiene facilities have made infection-control measures difficult to follow.

Late last month, Gaza’s health ministry reported its highest infection toll for several months: 1000 cases in a single day. Al Jazeera reports that at least 65,500 people in Gaza have been infected, and 610 deaths have been recorded since the start of the pandemic.

But, whether the Covid situation in Gaza improves or worsens, restrictions on the Palestinian population of Gaza are highly likely to remain in place, whatever the results of the latest Israeli elections, meaning that they face a lockdown that will last far beyond Covid.

The third most densely populated place on earth, the Gaza Strip has a population of more than two million, 75 per cent of whom are under 25, two-thirds are UN registered refugees, and 80 per cent are dependent on aid.

Gaza has, in effect, been closed off from the outside world for nearly 15 years, and most of those young people have never been beyond its walled perimeter. It is smaller than the Isle of Wight, and is often described as the world’s biggest prison. The United Nations considers Israel to be the occupying power of this territory, as, despite vacating its settlements in 2005, Israel continues to control Gaza’s airspace and coastline.

Some limited context is important here. Hamas took control of Gaza by force in 2007 after a brief but bloody civil war with its rival Fatah, since when Israel — and, for much of the period, Egypt — has maintained a blockade, which has, with modest modifications, survived to the present day, imploding Gaza’s economy, leaving close to half the population unemployed, and preventing travel through Israel for the majority of the population.

In the past 15 years, Gaza has experienced three wars with Israel, leaving thousands of Palestinians dead and tens of thousands homeless. Clean water is unavailable for 95 per cent of the population, and electricity supplies have been as low as two hours per day, up to a high of 14 hours in January of this year.

Ongoing power shortages, however, have had a severe impact on the availability of essential services, particularly health, water, and sanitation, undermining Gaza’s fragile economy, especially manufacturing and agriculture sectors. Add to that almost 50-per-cent unemployment.

 

A VISIT to Gaza is never simple. Generally, only aid workers, media, and diplomats can apply to Israel for permits to enter via the Erez crossing. Walking across a flattened wasteland to get to the Palestinian side — an area previously brimming with orchards, herds of goats, and even factories — is sobering.

Departing the high-tech and heavily fortified Israeli terminal is like being disgorged into another, shattered world. The desolate “buffer zone” gives way to blocks of flats teetering on the verge of collapse, riddled with bullet holes, but which families still live in. Plastic sheeting covers “windows”, and children play in the rubble. In the relentless summer heat, the stench of raw sewage hits the back of your throat.

In the urban heart of Gaza, life can appear deceptively normal. But then you talk to people, and you begin to understand that mental-health issues are, indeed universal. Schooling, health care, and making a living are fragile in Gaza, but, as here, they are the lifelines on which people depend.

Globally, Christian Aid supports local organisations to meet the needs of the communities of which they are part. They are our partners in the fight to eradicate poverty and challenge the abuse of power. One organisation, the Culture and Free Thought Association in Khan Younis, supports children and their families, specialising in psychosocial support. It ensures a safe environment that the local school system — which operates a double- and even a triple-shift system, with more than 40 in a class — struggles to provide.

Despite limited employment opportunities, and having often to do their homework by candlelight in cramped conditions, the children I have met in the centre are determined to succeed. Anas Ghalban, aged 16, told me: “We are like other children all over the world — in London, Europe, and other parts: we have our hopes and ambitions for the future.

“Some of us have the ambition to be doctors, writers. But, in Gaza, we have a different situation and condition that can negatively affect us, not like the children in other countries who have many things to encourage them in their lives.”

Like my own children, Anas has dreams. Unlike mine, he thinks about whether he will have enough electricity to help him study.

Abdul Salam Wadiya, 43, a farmer and a father to eight children, grows vegetables on a small piece of land east of Gaza city near the Israeli wall. The Israeli military forbid farmers from growing trees in this area, as these are considered a security threat. This year, Abdul lost an entire crop, owing to floodwater released from the Israeli side of the wall into Gaza.

He told me that no Palestinian government official in Gaza had visited this area or offered him support. Crippling debt is the reality when he loses his income. The only financial support that he received was from a community-protection committee established by another Christian Aid partner, the Agricultural Development Association (PARC).

Perhaps the most difficult stories to hear are those of people who are suffering from chronic diseases, such as cancer, which Gaza’s health system cannot treat. These patients need to travel to hospitals in Jerusalem or Ramallah — about 90 minutes away by car. But they need an Israeli permit to make that journey.

The World Health Organization (WHO) tells the story of three-year-old Jana, who was diagnosed with cancer. Both Jana’s and her mother’s applications for permits were repeatedly delayed or denied for five months.

WHO reports: “In 2019, more than a quarter of the 7,566 permit applications for children to exit the Gaza Strip for healthcare were unsuccessful — either denied (5 per cent) or delayed (23 per cent), with families receiving no definitive response to their permit applications by the time of their hospital appointments. In the vast majority of cases, the Israeli authorities provide no explanation for why permit applications are not successful.”

 

SO, IN the midst of our own real problems at home, can we now relate to Gaza, which faces a lockdown within a lockdown?

Palestinians in Gaza could be forgiven for thinking that the fickle Western media simply do not care. In a world of multiple crises and humanitarian emergencies, not to mention a global pandemic that has killed more than 125,000 here in the UK, Gaza grabs the headlines only when war breaks out.

But, as we begin to feel emboldened by the scale of the vaccination programme here, and contemplate summer holidays again, for people such as Anas, Abdul, and Jana, Covid has simply added to a long list of existing challenges that are already, slowly but surely, destroying the fabric of their lives.

 

William Bell is head of Middle East for Christian Aid.

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