Abdelnaser Soboh, the World Health Organization official in charge of the COVID-19 emergency in the Gaza Strip, issued an alarm last week that leaves no room for interpretation: “Within a week, we will become unable to care for critical cases” of the coronavirus.
The risk that was much dreaded in March, at the beginning of the pandemic, is about to become a dramatic reality in this strip of Palestinian land that has been tormented in recent years by Israeli military offensives, beset by the scarcity of drinking water and electricity, and which is facing the precariousness of its civilian infrastructure.
The number of infections is rapidly increasing and the percentage of positive swabs is over 20%. “Very soon, our health care will not be able to absorb such an increase in cases, and there may be patients who will not find a place in intensive care,” warned Abdel Raouf Elmanama, a member of the Gaza Pandemic Task Force.
Until a few weeks ago, the consequences of the pandemic had been relatively mild in Gaza, where just over two million Palestinians live: 65 deaths out of about 15,000 infected. These numbers are much lower than in other parts of the world. However, the number of serious cases is now increasing rapidly. Seventy-nine of the 100 respirators available are already in use. The “European” Khan Yunis hospital, the main COVID center in Gaza, is full, and every day dozens of people who suspect they may be positive queue up for hours to be swabbed and given assistance.
In recent months, Israel has allowed 60 respirators and a dozen swab devices to enter Gaza. However, the need is higher than this. And the Palestinians are blaming the Israeli blockade, which they denounce for not having allowed a more efficient reorganization of the health system in the Strip. In recent days, the Hamas Islamic movement—which has controlled Gaza since 2007—has warned Israel, through the Egyptians, that the situation is about to “get out of control.”
According to well-informed sources quoted by the newspaper Al Akhbar, the recent rockets fired from Gaza into Israeli territory are nothing more than an alarm call. “A dozen or so swab analysis machines and another 40 respirators are needed immediately to cover the needs of the coming weeks. Otherwise, the failure of the care plan for the sick will be inevitable, with dramatic consequences,” writes journalist Aziz Kahlout of Gaza City.
The message came from the other side of the armistice lines. Defense Minister Benny Gantz has made it known that Israel is ready “to reach a solution and help improve the conditions of those living in Gaza.” However, he added, this is contingent on an agreement being reached that would include the release of two Israeli citizens and the return of the bodies of two soldiers who died in combat in 2014. Hamas reiterated that such an exchange must necessarily include the release of a number of Palestinian political prisoners by Israel.
The positions of the two sides have not drawn any closer in recent years, and will hardly do so now, even faced with COVID, with serious risks of a military escalation. A few months ago, the head of Hamas in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, speaking about the insufficient number of respirators, warned that “if Gaza cannot breathe, then the others [the Israelis] will not breathe either.”
An element that weighs on the current climate is the report presented by UNCTAD (UN) in recent days, which explains how the Israeli blockade of Gaza has cost its inhabitants more than $16 billion—six times the value of Gaza’s gross domestic product in 2018, or 107% of total Palestinian GDP, including the West Bank—and how it has pushed more than one million Palestinians below the poverty line between 2007 and 2018.
The number of positive cases in the Palestinian Occupied Territories—on Thursday there were 1,906 new positives and 18 deaths—has led the Prime Minister of the National Authority, Mohammad Shtayyeh, to impose a total lockdown in the West Bank during weekends (Friday and Saturday) and a night curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. for two weeks.
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