The first two cases of the coronavirus have now been confirmed in the Gaza Strip, with those individuals reportedly entering Gaza through Egypt, having traveled from Pakistan.
This is an incredibly frightening development, with potentially devastating consequences for those living in the enclave. If COVID-19 spreads in Gaza, and particularly if it spreads across the territory, the ramifications are absolutely immense for both Gazans - but also for Israel as an occupying power.
This is a long-overdue time of reckoning for Israel. It must finally step up and accept responsibility for its imprisonment of two million human beings for almost 13 years. Israel has acted with almost complete disregard for Gazans’ basic human rights without expecting considerable repercussions, for the people of Gaza, but also for itself. The situation in Gaza is grave and has been for a long time, but with COVID-19 there is the potential for it to become far worse.
This is what Israel needs to do now.
Firstly, if ever there was a time for Israel to change how it relates to, and engages with, Palestinians and in particular those living in the Gaza Strip, it is this present and unprecedented moment.
Israel argues that it disengaged from the Gaza Strip in 2005, but today Israel continues to maintain a land, sea and also air blockade of the enclave that began in 2007. This blockade needs to be lifted - now, not only because it is inhumane, and illegal under international law, but also because in these uncertain circumstances, Gazans must be given a fighting chance of survival – and the freedom to both move and help themselves in a worst-case scenario. This will be particularly necessary if Israel does not, or cannot, step in to offer assistance.
If Israel continues to blockade Gaza, then Israel is responsible for the resulting devastation within it; Israel’s leaders could potentially be prosecuted pursuant to international criminal law.
Secondly, Israel has considerable obligations as an occupying power with respect to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, which includes Gaza, a legal status repeatedly affirmed by the United Nations Security Council and the UN General Assembly. The International Court of Justice has also referred to Israel as an occupying power. That Israel denies that it is an occupying power in relation to Gaza should have no effect on the international community holding it to account for responsibilities it has long neglected.
According to international humanitarian law, including the Fourth Geneva Convention and customary international law and also pursuant to international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which outlines the right to health, as an occupying power Israel must ensure that those living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including Gaza have adequate medical care, medical supplies and medicines.
Israel is required to maintain medical establishments and hospitals, ensure public health and hygiene and importantly in the current circumstances - prevent the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.
These obligations should be adhered to by Israel at all times, but it is critically important in the current circumstances. That Israel initially sent a scant 200 coronavirus tests into Gaza suggests that Israel is aware of its obligations as an occupying power and is concerned about being perceived to be doing the right thing internationally, but that act is so inadequate - one test per 10,000 people - as to be valuable only on the most symbolic level.
Israel is required under international law to do far more: to make a genuine, concerted effort, to the best of its ability in the circumstances, to ensure healthcare and prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Gaza.
To this end, Israel is required to cooperate with Palestinian leaders, including the Palestinian Authority more generally (that co-operation is indeed happening), and Hamas with regards to Gaza – who also have an obligation to ensure the health care of their people - to arrange for the testing of Gazans who are unwell and to provide for their immediate, unhindered, safe passage to Israel, East Jerusalem or the West Bank for medical care, if no appropriate treatment is available in Gaza.
While other countries are closing their borders, the Erez border between Israel and Gaza should therefore remain open and unencumbered for the import of medical equipment and staff, and the immediate transportation of those in need of treatment. The medical care ensured by Israel is required to be to the best standard that Israel can provide in the circumstances. Israel must also ensure the supply of food into Gaza if there is an insufficient supply in the enclave.
Again, these are not suggestions as to what should occur in a best-case scenario if Israel has the resources, time and inclination. These are Israel’s basic obligations under international law. Even if Israel is not in a position to ensure the medical care of Gazans, these obligations remain, and Israel must ask other states and entities such as international organisations and NGOs for assistance and that assistance must have free passage into Gaza.
Israel has long acted with complete impunity towards Palestinians, a stance that has led to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court attempting to open an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity. Israel has also been accused of perpetrating violations of international human rights law. This has only occurred, because powerful countries that are friendly with Israel turn a blind eye.
This dysfunctional international dynamic of impunity and lack of recourse for Palestinians may however change with a sudden escalation of individuals dying from COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip, particularly if the situation reaches a tipping point when it becomes so horrific that it is impossible for the world to continue to ignore what is happening. When it becomes impossible to say nothing, and look away.
There is still an opportunity for Israel to show its commitment to the basic human rights of Palestinians, even if it refuses to recognize their national rights. But this requires Israel to act now to take swift and drastic steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the Gaza Strip and ensure medical care for those who become infected. This is not merely a suggestion or preference. This is Israel’s responsibility under international law.
International law aside, there is another even more fundamental basis on which Israel should provide assistance to those in Gaza: It is a moral obligation. It is the right thing to do.
Perhaps when the threat of COVID-19 eventually subsides, Israel will reconsider at a more fundamental level its engagement with Palestinians, its response to their right to self-determination and its treatment of those in the Gaza Strip, far above and beyond the most minimal actions to prevent a mass loss of life and a humanitarian disaster.
Shannon Maree Torrens is an international and human rights lawyer from Sydney, Australia. She has worked at the United Nations international criminal tribunals and courts for the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Cambodia, and with the International Criminal Court. She holds a PhD in international criminal law from the University of Sydney. Twitter: @shannonmtorrens
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