In the days and weeks following the worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic many around the world have halted all train of political thought. “This is no time for politics” you hear, as people descend into panic and entire nations lock down. Solidarity has grown between communities all over the world, but for the Israeli government it is business as usual, and today, on Palestinian Prisoner Day, none are so far removed from potential relief than the oppressed people of Palestine.
Approximately 5000 Palestinians are currently held in 23 Israeli prisons and detention centres, including 43 women and 183 children. Addameer, one of the key organisations for documenting Israel’s offences against Palestinians, estimates over a third of these cases have not been found guilty of any security breaches under Israeli military judicial standards, but are still being held in unsanitary conditions, with no regard to social distancing. To hold these people in inhuman conditions, going as far to tell them to use their own socks as masks and to purchase Clorox with their own money, while denying them access to basic cleaning products such as soap and hand sanitizer, is nothing short of sheer negligence in the face of one of the greatest crises humanity has ever faced.
The healthcare afforded to Palestinian prisoners, many of whom are incarcerated for minor offences such as stone throwing (a wholly separate charge under Military Order 1651), is subpar to say the least. A COVID-19 outbreak would be utterly devastating, with three Israeli prison wardens already testing positive for the virus, and three suspected cases in children held in Ofer prison between Ramallah and Jerusalem, organisations such as the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society, Adalah – The Legal Centre for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are all demanding proper measures be taken to defend against potential catastrophe, but unfortunately these pleas are falling on deaf ears as it is likely too late. Cells in these prisons are shared between eight people on average, with disinfectant only being applied to the main recreational yard in a limited number of prisons, and wardens entering cells multiple times a day to disinfect windows; a practice which clearly could cause more harm than it would do good.
Any measures put in place to address the pandemic are social distancing in name only. When prisoners are unnecessarily held in crowded cells, but lawyers are restricted from visiting, there is a clear agenda afoot. One that has permeated Israeli-Palestinian politics for many decades; there are very real fears that many of the ‘social distancing’ measures being introduced by the Israeli occupation may not be lifted once this crisis has subsided. This is not an imagined threat, the Minister of Public Affairs for Israel, Gilad Erdan, famously stated in January 2019 that conditions should be purposefully worsened for Palestinian political prisoners, going as far as to say it was his ‘moral duty’ to the Israeli people to do so. The measures introduced since early March which echo Erdan’s message have been, to name a few, reducing water supply to cells, removing showers for all prisoners, reducing family visits to twice a month for only 45 mins, reduced access to television and denying visits from parliamentarians and journalists trying to learn of conditions.
But this substandard healthcare is not just a prisoner’s problem, no, any hospital found in the occupied Palestinian territory is riddled with problems, and many healthcare professionals who work in these environments, particularly in the Gaza strip, were protesting poor working conditions before the COVID-19 outbreak. The 25-mile-long Palestinian territory is one of the most densely populated civilian areas in the world, and according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, would not be able to handle more than 100 to 150 serious cases at any one time; since health officials confirmed the first two coronavirus cases in the strip on March 22 , it is frightfully clear that Gaza is not prepared for what is to come. There are many reasons as to why conditions are so poor in Gaza, but the sanctions imposed on the strip by Israel, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority, as well as the decision by Trump in 2018 to stop providing aid to the UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) are but a few of the causes of these poor conditions.
The Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank, have had a number of its officials detained by Israeli police in occupied East Jerusalem. These are no isolated incidents, with Israeli police conducting raids on many Palestinian homes, abducting residents as they have for many years. Covert raids by Israeli forces have continued throughout the crisis, with the official figure of children in detention released by Israel in January being 183. On Tuesday April 14, a COVID-19 testing clinic located in East Jerusalem in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan, an area with 40 confirmed cases of the virus, was raided and shut down by Israeli Authorities, with the organisers of the clinic being arrested. This is no time for solidarity in Israel’s eyes.
It is clear that Palestine and her people are not fit to deal with COVID-19. It will be weaponised against them, if not directly, by the policies which claim to fight against it. Hopes were that the Israeli government would, at the least, lift sanctions on foreign aid during this time of international crisis, however there are no signs of them letting up anytime soon; even as pressure mounts from various groups, and the number of COVID-19 cases among occupied Palestinian territories creep upwards, standing at 295 as of April 17.
The remorseless approach to the COVID-19 pandemic by Israel with respect to the Palestinian people is nothing short of criminal. Apartheid never died, it lives on in Palestine.
Brad Parker and Randa Wahbe speakers at PSC webinar 16 April 2020 representing No Way To Treat A Child campaign and Addameer respectively.