Middle East in Focus
Cut off from the rest of the region and the world for more than a decade, Palestinians in the Gaza Strip could have counted the absence of any Covid-19 cases in the territory as one of the unintended ‘blessings’ associated with the siege. However, as of last week, that is no longer the case, raising the fear of a mass contagion in the Strip due to its very high population density and almost non-existent healthcare system resulting from the siege. Meanwhile, Israel continues its unrelenting expropriation of land in the Occupied Territories, taking advantage of the ongoing global instability. And yet, according to a number of reports, concerns about Covid-19 may result in a long-awaited release of Palestinian prisoners currently held in Israeli jails.
First reports of the spread of the novel coronavirus in the Gaza Strip came from the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram, confirming news of “Two Palestinian men — aged 79 and 63 — who had travelled from Pakistan and entered Gaza through Egypt tested positive for the virus and have been in quarantine in Rafah, a town near the Egyptian border, since their arrival.... Because of Israel’s siege since 2007, movement on border crossings between Egypt and Israel is restricted and the vast majority of Gaza’s population of two million people are virtually prisoners in the enclave. The fact that until this week there were no reported coronavirus cases in the Strip weeks after the virus spread in neighboring Israel and Egypt testifies to the cruelty of the siege which cut off Gaza from the world for over 13 years.”
With Israel struggling to contain the spread of Covid-19 within the country, it is not surprising that Palestinian security forces have tried to implement stringent measures to ensure that the virus remains localized. However, according to Al Monitor’s Daoud Kuttab, such efforts are complicated by what he and some Palestinian officials consider are short-comings in the Oslo Accords: “Palestinian government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem told Al-Monitor that under the state of emergency (which was renewed April 1) the Palestinians are under lockdown, and travel is permitted only with permits. ‘While the [World Health Organization] has called for cooperation on all fronts in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, the Israelis pick and choose where and how to cooperate,’ he said.... While the Palestinian police control regions in Area A, as designated by the Oslo Accord, in larger cities, the Qalandia and Kufr Aqab area is outside the sovereign control of the Palestinian police. Attempts to have the Palestinian police move into those areas have failed.”
Challenges posed by Covid-19 would have been formidable under normal circumstances for a small and under-resourced Palestine, but, as long-time Palestinian diplomat and negotiator Saeb Erekat points out in a recent op-ed written for The National, dealing with Covid-19 becomes even more difficult in light of Israel’s discriminatory policies: “The threat of coronavirus has not stopped Israel’s illegal colonial project, as it continues to demolish Palestinian homes and to confiscate Palestinian properties… Palestinians, therefore, are confronting more than one threat.... As the Palestinian public sector was mobilizing to protect our people from this fearsome pandemic, Israeli raids on Palestinian areas have continued, including a recent, particularly vicious one on the Al Issawiya neighborhood of East Jerusalem. And as usual, Israeli settlers have continued their terror attacks against Palestinians and their properties under the protection of Israeli armed forces.”
Writing for Arab News, Palestinian commentator Ray Hanania notes that the problem with illegal and/or forceful land seizures may exceed the Palestinian Authority’s capabilities, calling on regional partners to intervene: “Since 1967, Israel has spent millions of shekels secretly buying up Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, a new study by the Israeli group Peace Now (PN) reports.... Every week, new lands are targeted and secretly purchased. The victims are the civilians who live on the land, as well as many who live outside of Israel’s control but are prohibited by Israeli laws from living on the land because they are Palestinian.... If the Palestinian leadership wants to keep rejecting peace with Israel, then it needs to step up to the plate and help Palestinian families fight for their land rights; not just in press releases, but in the courts too.... Just as the Israelis set up agencies like KKL-JNF to fight for Jewish land rights, the Arab world needs to step in and create similar agencies to fight for the land rights of Palestinians.”
Nevertheless, news outlets have reported on some potentially positive developments with regards to the possible release of a number of Palestinian prisoners. The Jerusalem Post’s Khaled Abu Toameh cites a number of high ranking Hamas officials who had expressed the desire to reach an agreement with the Israeli government on the issue of Palestinian prisoners: “Hamas said on Tuesday that it was willing to be “flexible” regarding a prisoner exchange with Israel, adding that the ball was now in the Israeli court. Earlier this week, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar indicated his group’s readiness to make concessions in order to reach a prisoner swap deal with Israel.... Hamas, he said, was prepared to make a “partial concession” on the issue in return for the release of elderly, female and minor prisoners held in Israeli prisons, in the context of a humanitarian initiative in light of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.”
News of a possible agreement was also confirmed by a Press TV report citing Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh, according to whom “the Palestinian Hamas resistance movement says the movement is determined to secure the freedom of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails in a swap deal with the Israeli regime. Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, made the remarks in a telephone conversation with Mikhail Bogdanov, the Russian deputy foreign minister, on Wednesday, saying that the prisoner swap would be made only if the Israeli side complied with the movement’s demands.... Israel keeps thousands of Palestinians behind bars in dire conditions even despite the new coronavirus outbreak, which has seen many international rights organizations campaigning for the release of the inmates amid the pandemic.”