If ever a nation was prepared for the onslaught of the Covid19 virus and all the disruption and fear that comes with it, some might think that the Palestinians would be in pole position. After all, they have endured lockdowns, segregation, isolation, food shortages and being banned from living a normal life for decades in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip and even inside Israel, where they make up one-fifth of the population.
No one knows better than Palestinian doctors, surgeons, clinicians, paramedics and other health workers the frustration of not having the right medicines, disposables and equipment, and of working in a crisis with an acute shortage of beds. No one knows better than Palestinian teachers and schoolchildren the challenges of delivering and receiving an education when the school run involves being shot at and harassed at military checkpoints, and where they aren’t even safe in their classrooms.
Then again, no other nation in the world has to deal with Israel’s brutal military occupation. What does this mean? Unbelievably in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, it means Israeli soldiers spitting on Palestinians and their homes quite deliberately; it also means Israeli soldiers descending in their jeeps on the Palestinian community of Khirbet Ibziq in the Jordan Valley to escort a bulldozer and two flatbed trucks with cranes to destroy an emergency field clinic and hospital set up to deal with Covid-19. A full report on this criminally malicious act was filed by the Israeli Information Centre for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, known around the world as B’Tselem. Typically, while the world’s attention is focused elsewhere, Israel takes the opportunity to break even more international laws and inflict even more pain and misery.
Around the same time as the Israel military set about trashing the clinic, hundreds of emergency workers were turning the Excel exhibition centre in East London into a giant field hospital. That part of London has roughly the same size population as Gaza’s two million, and the new hospital called the Nightingale boasts two wards with 4,000 beds as Britain’s capital braces itself for the number of virus victims to soar.
No one really knows if those 4,000 emergency beds will be enough for London, but we know with near certainty that its 60 ICU beds with respirators will not be enough for the Gaza Strip. There are real fears that a major outbreak of Covid-19 in Gaza will be impossible to contain. Nine cases have already been reported; there are another 84 patients in the West Bank.
On top of all of this, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) has suspended the salaries of day workers in Gaza. Such workers are hired and paid one day at a time in a place where any job at all is of immense value to people in desperate need.
The London-based Palestinian Return Centre (PRC) has condemned this move brought about by the virus outbreak which has forced UNRWA to curtail a number of its vital functions. “Such a decision is arbitrary and unjust and it will affect thousands of UNRWA staff who are the sole breadwinners for their cash-stripped families, particularly in poverty-stricken Gaza and war-torn Syria,” said the PRC. “A suspension of daily wages means that hundreds of children, women and disabled persons risk being deprived of essential items, including food and life-saving medicines. Regardless of the legal gist of UNRWA’s work contracts, humanitarian considerations should be taken into serious account by the Agency at a time when thousands of families are already struggling for survival and thousands of breadwinners are risking their lives to provide for their children.”
It remains to be seen if UNRWA’s new Commissioner-General, Philippe Lazzarini from Switzerland, will do the right thing and reverse the decision which, as the PRC says, has turned Palestinian refugees and their families into “scapegoats” in the fight against the virus. More than five million Palestine refugees depend on UNRWA for essential services, and that dependency is now more serious than ever.
Back in Britain, meanwhile, selfish Brits are fighting over toilet rolls in supermarket aisles and reporting their neighbours to the authorities for walking the dog twice daily instead of once, thereby breaking the stay-at-home rules. Such is the complacency of the pampered West.
Instead, they should educate themselves about the history of Palestine and the obligations and implications of Britain’s infamous 1917 Balfour Declaration which basically gave away Palestine without consulting the indigenous people. It did, however, promise that in giving the land as a “national home for the Jewish people… nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.” The British government has fallen far short in that respect over the past hundred years and more.
Today, then, as you hunker down in “lockdown” at home, bemoaning the fact that the toilet roll has only a few sheets left and the milk in the fridge is two days from its sell-by date, spare a thought for the Palestinians who have been living a life of enforced sieges, segregation and isolation for more than 70 years since Israel was created in their land. In their own “lockdown plus”, they also have the malicious actions of a brutal military occupation army to contend with. Like the coronavirus, the Israeli army has no qualms about striking young and old alike, women and men; any person, any time, any place; and killing people at random.
With no daily commute to go through, many of us now have time on our hands. We should use it wisely to help those, like the people of occupied Palestine, for whom the coronavirus is yet another deadly challenge to overcome in circumstances and conditions that we can’t imagine in our wildest dreams.