March 18, 2021. This month marks one year since the start of the pandemic, 12 months during which even the world’s strongest economies and healthcare systems were pushed to the brink. Years of closure and severe, sweeping restrictions imposed by Israel on movement of people and goods to and from Gaza meant that residents of the Strip faced the global crisis with a deficient health system and failing economy.
In March 2020, Israel tightened the restrictions it has enforced for years on travel via Erez Crossing to an even greater degree, in a move framed as necessary to stop the spread of the virus. This “coronavirus closure” at Erez, the sole crossing point between Gaza and Israel, is still in effect. To this day, Israel is limiting exit from Gaza through Erez to a small number of patients in need of critical medical treatment, and a handful of other cases. It’s a dramatic intensification of the closure tightened by Israel in 2007. Movement through Erez Crossing in the last year is down to just 6% of what it was in the beginning of 2020. All travel for work-related purposes or to visit sick relatives, for example, has been completely blocked for more than a year, though these were some of the already few circumstances in which Israel allowed Gaza residents to exit the Strip before the pandemic.
Movement of people between Gaza and Egypt via Rafah Crossing, controlled by Egypt, was also halted in March 2020. The crossing only operated sporadically throughout the year, until Egypt reopened it for more or less regular operation last month.
In contrast to movement restrictions imposed in most countries, and in Israel itself, the “coronavirus closure” at Erez Crossing has remained virtually unchanged since it was imposed in March 2020. In Israel, officials gathered several times a week to scrutinize the measures taken to curb the spread of the pandemic, with consideration for the economic and social costs of restricting freedom of movement. The crossings between Israel and the West Bank have been closed and reopened according to Israel’s whims and interests. Meanwhile, the need for a nearly hermetic and continuous travel ban at Erez Crossing was hardly discussed at all. It’s as if Israel locked the Strip, threw away the keys, and never looked back.
With the discovery of the first cases of COVID-19 in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, Gisha, together with partner human rights organizations, called on Israel to meet its obligations towards residents of Gaza, including by ensuring food security and access to adequate medical services, and enabling the Strip’s economy to function to the greatest possible extent. These steps were, and are still, urgently needed in order to protect Gaza’s economy and improve living conditions for its residents.
Since the first cases of community transmission were discovered in Gaza, local authorities in the Strip have imposed a series of internal lockdowns, restricting movement within the Strip, steps which also took a toll on the economy. At present there are about 58 patients in critical condition, out of around 2,500 active cases in the Strip. The death rate registered in Gaza has been higher than in Israel, and there is still a long road ahead in terms of ending the crisis. While almost 50 percent of Israeli citizens have already been vaccinated, Israel continues to ignore and evade its legal obligation to ensure the vaccine is available to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Until today, only about 62,000 vaccine doses have entered the Strip.
Israel has obligations towards the millions of Palestinians living under its control according to both international and Israeli law. While only an end to the occupation can guarantee full protection of human rights, until then, there are steps that Israel must take to prevent further harm to residents of Gaza, including:
1. Lifting sweeping travel restrictions and instituting a reasonable policy at Erez that balances between public health and human rights – including the rights to access medical care, family, education, and work. Travel by traders and laborers and must be renewed and increased, subject only to relevant precautions.
2. Allowing full access to medical equipment and adequate medical services, including full access to coronavirus vaccines.
3. Ceasing the collective punishment of Gaza residents and the disproportionate use of force, and lifting ongoing restrictions on access to agricultural areas and the fishing zone, as well as movement of goods through Kerem Shalom Crossing.
5. Enabling entry of communications equipment and additional items defined by Israel as “dual-use,”which are essential for the functioning of the local healthcare system, civilian infrastructure and the economy.
6. Refraining from conditioning access, including to medical equipment, medication and vaccines, on the return of the Israeli citizens and soldiers’ bodies being held captive in Gaza.