Our spring issue, “Pandemic Politics,” is out now. Get a discounted subscription today!

Israel Has Already Made Gaza Unlivable. Now the Coronavirus Is Coming.

Israel's blockade of Gaza has turned the strip of land into the “world's largest open-air prison.” And now the overcrowded enclave has its first confirmed cases of COVID-19.

A sunset descends over part of the Gaza Strip, seen from a hill on July 21, 2018. Lior Mizrahi / Getty

Back in 2012, the United Nations predicted that the Gaza Strip would be “unlivable” by 2020 — not, of course, that it had been particularly livable at any point in recent history. Now under Israeli occupation for more than five decades — forget the withdrawal-that-wasn’t in 2005 — the tiny, severely overcrowded Palestinian coastal enclave has also endured a crippling blockade since 2007.

Unemployment and food insecurity are rampant, and 97 percent of Gaza’s drinking water is considered unsafe. Power cuts are continuous. Health care equipment and medicine are in short supply, and Palestinians requiring medical treatment outside Gaza are regularly denied permission to travel by Israeli authorities — who, it bears mentioning, are often directly responsible for the conditions necessitating treatment in the first place, as when the Israeli military maimed Palestinian protesters en masse in 2018–19. Nor is the dismal health care situation ameliorated by Israel’s habit of bombing hospitals and killing medical personnel.

What happens, then, when you add coronavirus to the whole mix? It seems we’re about to find out.

On March 22, Gaza confirmed its first two cases of COVID-19, prompting the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem to warn that the spread of the virus in the Strip “will be a massive disaster, resulting entirely from the unique conditions created by more than a decade of Israeli blockade.” Given that Gaza’s health care system is “already on the brink of collapse,” the group foresees a “nightmare scenario” — one that Israel “created and made no effort to prevent.”

The two initial coronavirus cases were Palestinians returning to Gaza from Pakistan. Seven more cases were subsequently reported among security guards stationed at the quarantine facility where the returnees were being held, and one additional case has now been confirmed.

Al Jazeera writes that Gaza’s two million residents have been “urged to take precautionary measures and to practice social distancing by staying home in a bid to halt the spread of the virus.” But how, pray tell, are people supposed to social distance in a space so jam-packed that there’s barely room to breathe? And what sort of psychological trauma will ensue when an already traumatized population is forced to self-imprison in the “world’s largest open-air prison”?

In 2012, the same year the UN predicted the impending uninhabitability of the Gaza Strip — a territory comprised mainly of Palestinian refugees from what is now Israel — then-Oxfam spokesman Karl Schembri posed the appropriate question: “How can you talk about post-traumatic stress interventions in Gaza when people are still in a constant state of trauma?”

He referenced the prevalence of traumatized youth in the aftermath of Israel’s 2008–9 Operation Cast Lead, which killed more than 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza, including more than 300 children. This was followed by — among other homicidal sideshows —Operation Pillar of Defense in November 2012, in which the Israeli military eliminated nearly 200 Palestinians, and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, in which they slaughtered 2,251 Palestinians (including 551 children).

Needless to say, mental health services are among the many medical offerings that are severely lacking in the Gaza Strip. And just like with Israeli bombardments, the coronavirus assault is guaranteed to produce psychological torment in an ultra-confined area where even the idea of physical escape is generally impossible.

As Israeli academic Neve Gordon wonders over at the Nation, “how can the 113,990 refugees living in [Gaza’s] Jabalia camp, which covers an area of only 0.54 square miles, maintain physical distance from one another?” There’s also the case of Al-Shati camp, where “the density is even worse, with 85,628 refugees residing in an area of 0.2 square miles” and only a single health center and food distribution center.

The upshot, according to Gordon, is that “within Gaza’s eight refugee camps, the systems organized to save lives — health care and food supply — will undoubtedly become lethal bottlenecks, petri dishes for the deadly” coronavirus.

To be sure, calls for ending the Israeli siege of Gaza — the only just and sensible thing to do, especially in this time of global pandemic — will largely fall on deaf ears. The majority of the Israeli public can be counted on to endorse whatever sort of deadliness might befall the Palestinians, and the United States can be relied on to underwrite Israel’s murderous policies in Gaza via billions of dollars in aid and perennial insistence that Israel has the right to “defend itself” against the Palestinians it is massacring. So the Israeli government feels comfortable bombing Gaza without pause, coronavirus or not.

Meanwhile, a recent Jerusalem Post editorial titled “Good job, Israel” asserts that “everyone” in Israel should “give themselves a collective pat on the back” for their exemplary response to coronavirus in the country, despite the fact that ultra-Orthodox “and Arab sectors … are taking longer to internalize the urgency and seriousness that the virus poses and what not adhering to the directives will lead to.”

After all, there’s no time like the present for a good douse of racism against Palestinians who have themselves long been treated by Israel as a disease.

The Post additionally stresses that “we are at war” against the coronavirus, and that “only through unity and perseverance will we be able to defeat this invisible enemy.” But seeing as the inhabitants of the already unlivable open-air prison next door are suddenly facing the catastrophic fallout of a biological war inflicted by a very visible Israeli enemy, it’s clear that no pats on the back whatsoever are in order — just global condemnation and an end to the blockade.