March 11, 2020. Tomorrow, Thursday, Israel is due to impose an extensive closure on movement of people to and from the Gaza Strip in response to Coronavirus concerns. Travel through Erez Crossing has been limited since Sunday to medical patients, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship and foreign nationals as part of measures imposed by Israel on the occupied Palestinian territory during the Jewish holiday of Purim. Kerem Shalom Crossing, which Israel closed for Purim yesterday, has returned to normal operations.
Starting Thursday, exit from Gaza will be similarly limited to patients seeking urgent medical treatment and their companions, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship, Palestinian West Bank residents seeking to return to the West Bank, “exceptional humanitarian cases,” and foreign nationals. Erez Crossing will be open for exit from Gaza between 7:30 A.M. and 12:00 P.M; entrance into Gaza will be permitted until 7:00 P.M. Only Palestinian residents of Gaza will be permitted to enter the Strip, as well as foreign nationals, subject to special coordination with Israel. According to Palestinian officials, Israel is framing these restrictions as a necessary precaution against the spread of the COVID-19 virus. So far, COVID-19 cases have been reported in Israel and the West Bank, but not in Gaza.
Under the increased restrictions, approximately 6,000 Gaza residents with valid “trader” permits will not be able to exit the Strip to work and conduct business in Israel and the West Bank. Exit by the few people who meet Israel’s stringent criteria for travel via Erez, including people traveling to visit first-degree family, attend professional conferences and interviews at foreign consulates, are expected to be blocked for travel.
As of today, Rafah Crossing is operating as usual. Local Gaza authorities have reportedly set up a quarantine facility near Rafah Crossing for individuals returning from high-risk countries. Individuals entering the Strip from other destinations will be instructed to remain in self-quarantine at home.
The World Health Organization is helping to establish a medical facility near Rafah Crossing in case of a COVID-19 outbreak. The facility will include an intensive care unit with 36 beds, and 30 additional beds for diagnosed patients with milder symptoms. Dr. Aaid Yaji, the director of Palestinian Medical Relief Gaza, told Gisha that according to his estimations, Gaza does not currently have an adequate supply of sanitizer gel and face masks. Tap water in the Strip is already mostly undrinkable even in ordinary times, and waste disposal services are poor due to insufficient supply of electricity and inadequate infrastructure. Given these severe conditions, the fear of an outbreak in the Strip is a source of extreme concern among the public in Gaza, says Dr. Yagi.
Gisha recalls that Israel’s comprehensive, ongoing control over substantial aspects of daily life in Gaza comes with a responsibility to protect the fundamental rights and living conditions of its residents, even in challenging times such as the present. Any decisions to limit access must be based on legitimate concerns for public health, also for Palestinian residents, and Israel must allow humanitarian access under the widest possible interpretation of the term given the circumstances.