The coronavirus pandemic has revealed the weaknesses of government institutions around the world, especially in Palestine. Hardship is nothing new to Palestinians living under occupation, but COVID-19 has presented new challenges that exposed the vulnerability of their healthcare system.
As of last Tuesday, the total coronavirus cases in Palestine have risen to 661. The primary contributor to the spread of the novel virus in the West Bank has been due to Palestinian workers, largely those in the construction or agriculture industry, crossing the border into Israel. To combat the issue of daily crossings, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli government agreed to a plan that sets out to house the workers in Israel for three weeks. Employers would, therefore, be responsible to offer proper accommodations to their Palestinian employees during their stay. The PA has emphasized that this plan, while not ideal, was needed due to the financial contributions these workers bring to Palestine. The West Bank, which has an unemployment rate of 30%, relies on these workers to bring back $2.5 billion in revenue.
The plan has not worked out as smoothly as hoped, with reports showing that some Palestinian workers had not received the accommodations they were promised. One incident of a sick Palestinian worker, Malak Ghannam, who was assessed outside a hospital in Israel and later left at a checkpoint sparked great controversy regarding workers crossing the border. The PA accused the Israeli police of “dumping” Ghannam at a checkpoint after his boss became fearful of his symptoms. An associate of the Kav LaOved, an Israeli non-profit group focused on workers’ rights, says this action was done so without communication with Palestinian officials. Ghannam was later picked up by medical officials and brought back to Palestine where he tested negative for the coronavirus.
The Gaza Strip also faces its own problems due to the blockade, which was enacted by Israel and Egypt in 2007 after Hamas took control of the area. This blockade limits imports and exports to the Gaza Strip and has detrimental impacts on the well being of Palestinians, causing 38% to live in poverty while 54% are food insecure. Gaza’s situation creates a breeding ground for the virus considering its high population density, poor living conditions, and its reliance on foreign aid. Salam Khashan, a doctor in Gaza, voiced her concern to TIME and explained, “We don’t have enough hospitals, or ICU beds, or mechanical ventilators.” Considering these troubling facts, any outbreak of the virus in the area can prove deadly to many.
A weak healthcare system and the general scarcity of medical supplies is not unique to the Gaza Strip but to all of Palestine. The vulnerability of its healthcare system comes without surprise considering the long history of its destruction. While under British rule, Palestine was deterred from creating its own healthcare system. Today under Israeli occupation, the crippled healthcare system lacks the funding and resources needed to efficiently operate and serve the community.
For example, in the 1975 budget, the West Bank’s healthcare was allocated a minimal amount of funds that were less than the budget of one Israeli hospital. The allocation of funds continues to be an issue today in addition to the ban on “the import of technology with possible ‘dual use’” in Gaza. This ban prevents Palestinian hospitals from purchasing necessary supplies, such as X-ray scanners and medical radioscopes. A COVID testing facility was also shut down in East Jerusalem because it was run by the PA. International players, such as the United States, have also played a role in the weakening of Palestine’s healthcare. In 2018 the Trump administration cut $25 million of funding from the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. A loss of such a large amount only damages the already struggling system.
Law comes into question when we examine the legal responsibility Israel holds in relation to Palestinians. The United Nations has explicitly stated that the Israeli government holds the “legal duty” to provide Palestinians with adequate healthcare. Michael Lynk, UN Special Rapporteur and human rights specialists, explains, “The legal duty, anchored in Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, requires that Israel, the occupying power, must ensure that all the necessary preventive means available to it are utilized to ‘combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.” This statement connects to the larger question of international law and its validity. While yes, Israel technically has the legal duty to uphold Lynk’s explanation, this has not been the reality. The UN also called on Israel to release detained Palestinian children considering the extreme risk of contracting the virus in prisons. The group of officials backed their request with the Convention on the Rights of the Child which has been ratified by both Israel and Palestine. Even with this statement, little effort has been seen to release these children.
“The legal duty, anchored in Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, requires that Israel, the occupying power, must ensure that all the necessary preventive means available to it are utilized to ‘combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
The troubles between Palestine and Israel have always been known and the pandemic has only revealed more reason for a solution. The long history of political tensions and international intervention in the region has created a weak Palestinian healthcare system unable of handling the needs of its people on a regular basis let alone the consequences of a pandemic. The lack of resources and poor living conditions have only contributed to the destruction of any functioning healthcare system. International players’ objectives, while meaningful, have yet to resolve issues costing Palestinians their lives.