Palestinians reeling from triple pandemics of Covid-19, poverty and blockade – UN

Desperate Gaza residents are sifting through trash to source food amid soaring poverty worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic, along with a crippling 13-year Israeli blockade, the head of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees has said. 

Philippe Lazzarini, Commissioner-General of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), said “there is despair and hopelessness” not only in Gaza but throughout Palestine and the Palestinian refugee diaspora in neighboring and nearby nations.

“Beyond the health crisis, Covid-19 is also unleashing a brutal pandemic of abject poverty that is making Palestine refugees feel hopeless.”

Delivering UNRWA’s annual report to the UN General Assembly, Lazzarini highlighted the sense of “deep despair” among Palestinians.

“A deep sense of abandonment and despair has permeated many recent discussions I have had with young Palestine refugees. I hear about a renewed rush towards migration boats across the Mediterranean that regularly end tragically. My teams also report an increased prevalence of child labor, of child marriage, and of families who say they survive on one meal or even no meal every day.”

‘Despair, a threat to peace and stability’

“Despair and loss of hope make a dangerous cocktail in a highly volatile region, particularly for the youth, who feel increasingly disenfranchised and trapped,” Lazzarini added. 

The UN diplomat also noted the dramatic rise in Covid-19 infections among Palestinian refugees. Cases have soared from 200 in July to over 10,000 today.

“There is a development abyss in the Gaza context,” says Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the occupied Palestinian territories, noting that it has been felt acutely in the health and education sectors.

Schools are running double – and even triple – shifts to accommodate the growing youth population. Meanwhile, hospitals have been stretched beyond capacity.

Yet, while humanitarian assistance is little more than a quick-fix solution, analysts say weaning the territory off of this aid will be a complex and difficult process.

“You can’t just say, ‘OK, tomorrow no more food, no more support. You go elsewhere.’ There is no ‘elsewhere’ in Gaza … People are dependent on humanitarian [aid].”

The ‘world’s biggest open-air prison’

Gaza’s 2 million residents—more than half of whom live in poverty, according to the UN—have been subjected to a brutal blockade since 2007.

And although Israel ended its illegal 38-year occupation of Gaza in 2005, it maintains a physical and economic stranglehold on the territory, and has waged three major wars on the enclave since 2008, killing and wounding thousands of civilians while destroying much of the territory’s infrastructure.

The privation suffered by the people of Gaza has been so severe that the Norwegian Refugee Council has referred to it as the “world’s largest open-air prison,” where Palestinians live behind a blockade and are refused access to the other occupied Palestinian (oPT) areas and the rest of the world.

Israel has imposed movement restrictions on the Gaza Strip since the early 1990’s. 

Restrictions intensified in June 2007, following the takeover of that part of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) by Hamas, when Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Gaza, citing security concerns. 

Despite relaxation of some blockade-related restrictions in recent years, nearly two million Palestinians in Gaza remain ‘locked in,’ denied free access to the remainder of the territory and the outside world, according to The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). 

“The blockade has undermined the living conditions in the coastal enclave and fragmented the oPt and its economic and social fabric.”

Restrictions on fishing zones – reduced to 10 nautical miles from 15 earlier this year – impede people’s livelihoods. Import bans prevent critical goods, such as fuel and cooking gas, from entering the territory. And routine blackouts make daily life a struggle, with power sometimes available for just a few hours a day.

For some of the hardest-hit Palestinians, relief is practically impossible.

Rights groups say Israel is approving fewer and fewer applications for patients to leave the territory for medical reasons.

Some are interrogated as a prerequisite for permit approval – a practice denounced by human rights groups, such as Physicians for Human Rights, who point to Israel’s history of coercing patients into becoming collaborators in exchange for desperately needed medical care.

Gaza: Unlivable by 2020

The isolation of Gaza has been exacerbated by restrictions imposed by the Egyptian authorities on Rafah, its single passengers crossing.

Just 40 km long and 6–8 km wide with a total area of 365 square kilometers, according to Britannica, the enclave is one of the most densely populated areas on the planet.

More than 1.4 million Gazans are refugees and descendants of those who fled to the tiny coastal strip from other parts of Palestine during the Nakba, or “catastrophe” – the bloody campaign that convulsed the region during the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948-49. 

Over 700,000 Palestinians fled or were forced from their homes—often through the threat of or actual massacres—and were never allowed to return. Around 300,000 additional refugees were created by Israel’s conquest and illegal occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Syrian Golan Heights in 1967.

A 2012 UN report predicted the Palestinian enclave would be “unliveable” by 2020 if nothing was done to ease the blockade, but in June 2017 a UN report on living conditions in Gaza stated that all the indicators are going in the wrong direction and that deadline is actually approaching even faster than earlier predicted.

Michael Lynk, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, say that moment arrived long ago.

“The prediction of unliveability has already arrived. The common measuring stick used by the UN or any other international organisation to be able to evaluate how people live is human dignity, and Gaza has been without human dignity for years now.”

Other observers have noted how, long before the 2020 deadline, the Israeli siege had already produced untenable conditions throughout Gaza.

“The term ‘unliveable’ … is meant as an alarm bell for the international community, but that bell has been ringing for a long time.”

Sara Roy, senior research scholar at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

The warning, she added, has been ignored amid “international indifference” and humanitarian interventions that merely serve as a substitute for human rights.

Gaza Quick Facts

  • 1.9 million people are confined
  • 7 out of 10 are refugees
  • 700 children have been killed
  • 50% are traumatised by war
  • 70% of all schools run double shifts
  • 42% unemployment
  • 84% are in need of humanitarian aid
  • 41% have too little food
  • 98% of ground water is undrinkable
  • 2 – 4 hours of electricity
  • 35% of arable land is unavailable
  • 7% of the children suffer from stunted growth
  • 45% are refused medical treatment outside Gaza

Source:Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) 

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UNRWA’s budget shortfall

Lazzarini also addressed UNRWA’s financial crisis. 

The agency is suffering from a $130 budget shortfall, largely a result of the Trump administration’s suspension of funding, which fell from $360 million in 2017 to $60 million in 2018 to nothing since then. 

Saudi Arabia last week donated $25 million in a bid to help bridge the gap caused by the loss of funding from the U.S., which had been UNRWA’s largest contributor. 

“My priority now is to raise the necessary funds to sustain all our essential services,” Lazzarini said in his annual report. 

“Failing to raise the necessary funds will impact both the salaries of 28,000 staff and the delivery of critical services, including the schooling of more than half a million girls and boys.”

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Presh JM Reporter

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