Opinion

Israel's Disproportionate and Cynical ‘Coronavirus Lockdown’ on Gaza

Amir Rotem
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Palestinian Hamas police officers wear protective suits as they take part in a simulation of possible coronavirus infections in Gaza City, July 2020.
Palestinian Hamas police officers wear protective suits as they take part in a simulation of possible coronavirus infections in Gaza City, July 2020.Credit: Khalil Hamra,AP
Amir Rotem

When her mother fell ill and was on her deathbed nine years ago, Niveen Zanoun couldn’t obtain a permit from Israel to leave the Gaza Strip for a visit to the West Bank. She only received a permit after the funeral.

Now her father is dying of cancer in Nablus and Zanoun, 41, wants to make amends and see him, probably for the last time. But once again Israel is refusing her request, saying that the political leaders ruled in March that due to the coronavirus, the curse of a lockdown has been imposed on all Gazans.

For five months Israel has been imposing this lockdown on Gaza, in addition to the usual, permanent closure. Ostensibly it’s a cautionary step that governments are adopting everywhere around the world, when all of humanity is threatened by a pandemic that has affected millions, killed hundreds of thousands, and for which there is not yet a cure or vaccine.

In effect, this is a sweeping, disproportionate and cynical decision because it’s exploiting a plethora of circumstances to exacerbate a long-term policy that has branded Gaza a tainted territory, a penal colony, an isolated enclave.

A man holds a sign in support of Palestinian people to condemn the diplomatic agreement between the UAE and Israel, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan August 16, 2020.
A man holds a sign in support of Palestinian people to condemn the diplomatic agreement between the UAE and Israel, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan August 16, 2020.Credit: AKHTAR SOOMRO/ REUTERS

Among other things, this policy is trying to sever and isolate the two jurisdictions in which the Palestinians live – the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – in a demographic move being adopted for political reasons. And although Israel controls the most important aspects of the people’s lives, it avoids the responsibility that this entails.

It’s a fact that Israel allows tens of thousands of laborers from the West Bank into Israel to work there. It’s a fact that, while turning a blind eye, it’s also letting in thousands of Palestinians to enjoy its beaches.

The jobs are essential for the Palestinians, while Israel needs workers in the construction industry. And the rare trips to the beaches, to which West Bank residents rarely have access, is a temporary, necessary and welcome act of leniency, as travel restrictions stemming from fear of the pandemic add to the difficulties of life under occupation – for the second or third generation.

Israel lets relatives of its citizens come from abroad for weddings, and will do so for the High Holy Day observances next month, but it fought in court over its refusal to allow a father from Gaza to attend his daughter’s wedding in Israel. In the end, the event was held without him – while observing the customary safety precautions.

The claim regarding the health danger posed by the entry of Gazans is particularly infuriating because it’s known that Gaza hasn’t had a single case of community contagion. The government there imposes a three-week quarantine on anyone entering the Strip, one reason being the poor state of Gaza’s health care system.

At the same time, the few cases discovered in the Strip originated with people who were quarantined. That’s not the situation in Israel or in the West Bank. There is no foundation to the claim that Gaza residents are more dangerous than others – on the contrary.

So who’s being protected here? What factors were taken into account in making the decision, and who helped make it? When was the issue reconsidered in light of the information that has accumulated? The rate of exits at the Erez crossing since the coronavirus lockdown was imposed has declined to 1 percent of the rate in February.

And even before the coronavirus lockdown, Israel violated the Gazans’ human rights and didn’t let them leave, except, mainly, for medical treatments unavailable in the Strip. Plus, a few thousand people were allowed to leave to work and do business.

A Gazan could request permission to leave only if a first-degree relative was getting married, dying or dead. Now even life and death isn’t a good enough reason.

Amir Rotem is the public affairs chief at rights group Gisha.

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