How the Occupation Impacts the COVID-19 Response

Ben Winsor Image
Ben Winsor
on May 7, 2020

COVID-19 in Gaza and the West Bank: An Update from UNRWA

On Monday, top officials from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency joined J Stream from Washington, Gaza and East Jerusalem for an update on their work responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of this week, there have been over 500 cases of COVID-19 detected among Palestinians, including more than a dozen cases in Gaza. While authorities have not yet detected uncontrolled community transmission in Gaza, fears remain high that an outbreak would lead to catastrophe in the densely packed, poverty-stricken territory.

Watch the full update on J Stream here >>

With over 90 UNRWA-run schools in the West Bank and 276 schools in Gaza, UNRWA has been a major player when it comes to fast action on social distancing. “When the first cases of the virus were announced in March, like the PA, we closed down most of our schools,” Gwyn Lewis, Director of UNRWA in the West Bank, told J Street from East Jerusalem. “We also turned our 42 health centers into triage centers. More than 10% of the population in Gaza goes to our schools,” said UNRWA’s Gaza Director Matthias Schmale from Gaza City. “Taking them out of our schools and having them stay at home, together with the almost 9,000 education staff we think was a key measure in containment – because we are such a big player here, it has impact.”

Confronting a pandemic under occupation

While swift action appears to have contained outbreaks to a manageable level so far, coordination between Israeli and Palestinian authorities remains an issue, as do the impacts of the long-running occupation and Gaza blockade.

“Just in the past week we’ve seen about 90 Israeli security force incursions into the West Bank, and that means use of tear gas and live ammunition and sound-bombs,” Lewis said, noting that such incursions have had a direct impact on UNRWA’s work. “The tear gas was so intense around our health center [near Qalqilya], we had to close it down and evacuate all of our staff and the patients.”

Coordination issues have also led to challenges in East Jerusalem, and when it comes to Palestinian day laborers. “Because of the lack of service provision in some of the areas by the municipality of East Jerusalem, and the lack of access of the Palestinian Authority to those areas, it’s meant that we haven’t had the same access to testing and health support, and we haven’t had the same movement restrictions,” Lewis said. It was only after a High Court petition from Adalah, the legal center for Arab minority rights in Israel, that the Israel government committed to opening its first testing centers in East Jerusalem in mid-April.

With over 110,000 Palestinians in the West Bank working in Israel or on settlements, preventing the spread of COVID-19 will require Israeli and Palestinian authorities to work together. “The majority of new COVID cases that we have in the West Bank are Palestinian workers coming back from Israel, so coordination around that is really needed,” Lewis said.

In the West Bank, UNRWA has worked to adapt its social-work programs to suit the crisis, and instituted remote support and emergency hotlines. “Like in many places, there’s a lot of concern about protection issues in the home and increased violence in the home,” Lewis said.

In Gaza, the threat of a catastrophic outbreak looms large. “The good news so far is that the virus has not broken out locally,” Schmale said, though he stressed that the strip — home to almost 2 million people — wasn’t out of the woods yet. “After almost 15 years of blockade, the health system here is almost completely in meltdown.” The World Health Organization has said that for every 100 people who fall ill to COVID-19, 5 will need an ICU bed. “There’s a total of 87 in Gaza, so you can do the mathematics,” Schmale said grimly.

The economic situation is equally dire. Unemployment rates sat at 50% before the outbreak and could spike above 70%. More than 50% of the population depend on food from UNRWA, which the agency is now attempting to deliver to homes in order to avoid long lines at distribution centers.

Schmale said that while the blockade may have delayed and contained the arrival of COVID-19 in Gaza, it would be premature to declare the crisis averted. “People are getting restless like everywhere in the world.”

“We are not through this yet,” Schmale said. “If there is an outbreak, it will be precisely the blockade that will be the trigger for a major catastrophe. We need to stay very realistic about the political dynamics which have not fundamentally changed.”

The impact of American cuts

Elizabeth Campbell, Director of the UNRWA Representative Office in Washington, spoke frankly about the impact of the Trump administration’s decision to completely cut all US contributions to UNRWA’s work. “It has had a corrosive impact on our institutions, every year, bit by bit, we shave off more of our effectiveness to help in this very vulnerable situation,” she said, with UNRWA now entering its third year with no American support.

Still, decades of historic American support have helped build a foundation which has still boosted UNRWA’s ability to respond to the current crisis, Campbell said. “Everyone who works UNRWA is deeply proud of the US-UNRWA partnership, which lasted almost seven decades,” she said. “[The US] was a huge partner for us and something that we continue to miss today.”

Leaked emails from Trump son-in-law and White House advisor Jared Kushner show that cutting funding for UNRWA was a high priority for the administration. Kushner wrote that “sometimes you have to strategically risk breaking things.” After slashing support, the administration suggested that non-governmental organizations could step in to fill the void and sought to woo Palestinian support for the Trump “peace” plan with the promise of billions of dollars of Gulf-state investment — a move many saw as an attempt to push Palestinians to the brink so they might accept the Trump administration’s terms.

“It is sheer wishful thinking that any non-governmental organization, despite their competencies, would ever be able to absorb our work,” Campbell said. “We are talking about a school system that services over 500,000 children, if you put that into the United States it would be the third largest after New York and Los Angeles.”

Ultimately, however, the only long term solution is a political solution. “What has failed is reaching a just and lasting solution, and the political actors are responsible for that,” Campbell said. “What we do is simply manage these services to the best of our ability amid chronic conflict.”

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