by Munshi Zubaer Haque
While Israel continues to maintain a tough blockade on Gaza Strip in defiance of international law, there have been repeated notes of caution sounded from various quarters about an impending humanitarian collapse in this densely populated Palestinian enclave on the Mediterranean coast. Ironically, even Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was one of those who expressed his concern over the situation in the besieged Gaza Strip while touring the Israel-Gaza Border located in the jurisdiction of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF)’s Southern Command. In face of this dire situation in the ‘Occupied’ Gaza Strip, recently an emergency meeting was convened in the Belgian capital Brussels where representatives of European Union (EU), Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel and the US met together to discuss the humanitarian situation in Gaza Strip. While the Palestinian Side was represented by the Prime Minister of Palestinian Authority (PA), Rami Hamdallah, the Israeli side was represented by IDF Major General Yoav Mordechai, head of Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT). At this meeting, Israel presented a humanitarian project roadmap worth $1 Billion for Infrastructure Rehabilitation and Renewal in the Gaza Strip while asking the international community to bear responsibility for project financing. Also, security assessments of the current conflict between Israel and Hamas are anew with prospects of the fourth war in Gaza since 2009 as Israel and Hamas continue to engage each other militarily. Gaza and its people have yet to transcend memories of 2014 War in Gaza, when Israel’s Operation ‘Protective Edge’ wreaked havoc on Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and caused countless civilian casualties, thereby drawing fierce international condemnation of Israeli military response. Gaza has also the witnessed repercussions of US President Trump’s decision to cut aid for UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East), where Palestinian beneficiaries of UNRWA schemes and UN employees have widely protested the decision of the aid cut over concerns for their shared future. The much hyped Palestinian reconciliation between PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) and Hamas has presumably failed like other previous reconciliation initiatives between the two. But the grim humanitarian situation in the ‘Occupied’ Gaza Strip pervades all related political and security developments; even senior officials of Israeli occupation have been voicing concerns about an impending military conflict with Hamas that will likely emerge as a fallout of this humanitarian crisis.
Given the centrality of health to human security, a careful analysis of the health sector in the Gaza Strip gives a clear prism into the stark humanitarian picture in the Strip. A January 2018 press release by the Palestinian Ministry of Health gives an alarming picture. Out of the total 516 items in the Essential Drugs List (EDL), there is zero stock of 229 drugs. 81 items in the EDL list are currently available for only one to three months. For medical disposables and lab reagents, out of the total of 853 items in the list, while there is zero stock for 28% of medical disposables, the zero stock for lab reagents stands at 58%. A total of 350 medical equipments are currently non-functional in Gaza hospitals under Palestinian Ministry of Health while the annual costs for purchase of spare parts and maintenance of these medical equipments is $4 Million. In matters of maintenance of public hygiene for hospitals in Gaza Strip, the cleaning staffs have not been paid for 3 months and because of the workers’ strike, the Palestinian Ministry of Health has allocated an emergency budget of 1 Million Shekels to resolve the crisis. The ministry has contracts with 13 companies and maintains a monthly budget of $277,000 for cleaning services. One of the major challenges for Palestinian patients in Gaza Strip is to get permits for exiting Gaza Strip for accessing advanced healthcare in Palestinian hospitals in the Palestinian territory of West Bank and in Israeli hospitals. To avail options for advanced healthcare, Palestinian residents of Gaza are required to exit the besieged strip only through Erez Border Crossing controlled by Israel’s Defence Ministry. Wide ranging strict restrictions imposed by Israel imposed on Palestinian freedom of movement through this permit system across Occupied Territories has led to a significant decline in the number and percentage of Palestinians exiting the Gaza Strip through the Erez Crossing. According to GISHA, an Israeli organization, the number of Palestinians exiting Gaza Strip through Erez Crossing dropped by 51% in 2017 as compared to 2016. On an average, 5963 Palestinians exited Gaza Strip per month in 2017 as compared to 12150 in 2016 and 14276 in 2015. For Palestinians patients in the Gaza Strip who require emergency travel out of the Strip, a total of 30 such patients including children lost their lives in 2017 due to the closure of borders and denial of permit applications for medical travel. During 2017, out of 2047 patient applications for a permit to exit Gaza Strip for medical travel, only 54% were approved, 2% were denied and 44% were delayed. Most of these patients who were referred for treatment outside the Gaza Strip were cancer patients. Among other major issues, the current state of availability of electricity in Gaza has made a devastating impact on Palestinian homes, hospitals, educational institutions, offices, industrial and commercial units in Gaza. Electricity is available for only 4 to 6 hours in a day out of 24 hours. Unfortunately, the dispute between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas over the electricity supply and bearing of financial costs for electricity services has marred the crisis, and currently, on request of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Israel provides 20% of the available electricity in the Gaza Strip. Prior to the 2014 war, the situation of electricity supply was comparatively better, but Gaza’s only electricity power plant was destroyed by Israeli airstrike in the 2014 war, which exacerbated the situation. In the modern age of telecommunications, the cost of cellular communication and internet communication continues to be very expensive in Gaza. The Israeli occupation has recently permitted the Palestinian telecom companies to start 3G internet services in Occupied Gaza Strip, incidentally, all Palestinian telecom companies operating in Gaza are exclusively dependent on Israeli communication networks for their operations. In this digitized age, where access to internet is a basic human need for all, the Palestinian residents in Occupied Gaza do not have easy access to internet services.
There is no doubt as to the fact that the decade long Israeli siege of the Gaza Strip has had the most profound impact in terms of the current humanitarian situation in the strip. The internecine conflict between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority also has its own share of blame, because Hamas has repeatedly refused to cede control of Gaza to the internationally recognized and legitimate government of Palestinian people, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and also refused to abide by the Oslo Accords signed between Israel and PLO. It is highly unlikely that Israel will lift the ‘illegal’ siege anytime soon, but for the time being, Israel asking international community to finance $1 Billion for humanitarian projects in Gaza reveals its intention to maintain ‘cost free’ occupation of Palestinian people in Gaza in defiance of international law.
Munshi Zubaer Haque is an Intern at the Beirut Center for Middle East Studies