COVID-19 and Human Rights – 2013 Laureate Raji Sourani: “Governments must put human rights and dignity at the centre”
On the evening of 21 March 2020, Gaza’s health ministry confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19. Overpopulated and impoverished, the Gaza Strip faces particular vulnerability in the context of the pandemic. A potential large-scale outbreak of the virus would constitute another enormous strain on Gaza’s population, already affected by more than a decade of Israeli blockade, causing extreme poverty, harsh living conditions, dysfunctional infrastructure and a fragile healthcare system. Furthermore, Israel’s over half-century-long occupation of Gaza involved systematic human rights violations against the Palestinian population, including the use of excessive lethal force against protesters and prolonged administrative detention without charge or trial.
It is in these exceptional circumstances that 2013 Right Livelihood Award Laureate Raji Sourani has been tirelessly working to defend and promote human rights. As the most prominent human rights lawyer based in the Gaza Strip, Sourani established the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights to document and investigate human rights violations committed in the Occupied Territories, and has defended countless victims before Israeli courts. For his activism, he has been imprisoned six times by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
At the time of writing this article, 19 people in Gaza were tested positive with COVID-19. Giving the enormous challenges that this pandemic poses to the Palestinian population, we asked Sourani to give us more details about the situation in the Gaza Strip, where he currently resides.
What is the current situation in Gaza, and what are your major concerns?
Israel’s more than a decade-long closure of Gaza severely restricts the movement of people and goods. We have been in isolation for a very long time, and we know very well the implications of such an exceptional situation, that is now affecting most of the world.
At the moment, 19 people in Gaza are positive to coronavirus, 160 people in Jerusalem and 250 in the West Bank, mostly workers coming from Israel. The response to the crisis in Gaza has been mainly focused on prevention – by immediately quarantining all those coming from the outside – and on health education, including social distancing, personal protection, and hygiene rules. However, being Gaza one of the most densely populated places on earth, it became soon clear that home quarantine is not effective, and authorities have been using hotels, schools, hospital sections and health facilities to quarantine all those who have symptoms.
I am really worried about the lack of coordination between Israel and the Palestinian authority in tackling this crisis. Both of them bear the duty to provide essential health services and apply public health measures throughout this pandemic. However, this is not happening and people affected are not being treated in a non-discriminatory way.
What is the current condition of the health system and the provision of medical supplies?
The health care system in Gaza was on the brink of collapse even before receiving its first COVID-19 patient. It has been struggling for over a decade as a result of the blockade and the destruction of infrastructure by Israel, with shortages in medical devices, drugs, equipment and health workers expertise. Despite we have qualified doctors in Gaza, they are very limited in their work because they are completely disconnected from the outside. Public health conditions are extremely poor, including lack of water and electricity.
In such a critical moment, it’s more important than ever that Israel lifts the closure on Gaza, so that it can equip itself with the necessary medical supplies to combat the pandemic. As enshrined in Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the occupying power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining the “adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. Therefore, in addition to its own citizens and residents, Israel must fulfil its duty to protect people living under its occupation. However, at the moment, medical supplies in Gaza are coming from international actors only.
What about human rights? How has your work been impacted by COVID19?
PCHR is currently very limited in its work. We are dealing with cancer cases and other life-saving cases but it has become increasingly difficult because people remain stuck outside. We have also seen an increase in problems related to gender. This pandemic has worsened the already dramatic levels of poverty, and women are those who are being most affected. PCHR has also issued a warning that the state of emergency should not be used as an excuse to perpetrate human rights violations, and emergency state powers granted to executive authorities must not be used in an arbitrary manner.
I am extremely worried about the plan of the new Israeli coalition government to annex parts of the West Bank. In the coalition deal he signed with Benny Gantz’s Kahol Lavan party, Netanyahu has negotiated a right to annex parts of the West Bank from 1 July. It is clear to me that the Israeli government is using the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic to seek to implement this plan. However, the unilateral annexation of any part of the West Bank represents a serious breach of international law.
What about the impact of COVID-19 on the living conditions in Gaza?
Gaza’s population is a physically vulnerable population, with malnutrition on the rise, dense living and housing conditions, and an elderly population without access to proper nursing care. Appalling socio-economic conditions are prevalent throughout the Strip. The blockade forced residents of Gaza into extreme poverty, by trapping them in a closed, limited job market with an unemployment rate of more than 70% among young people and around 80% of residents relying on humanitarian aid. The impact of the virus on this scenario could be dramatic, and this is what worries me the most.
On the positive side, we have seen incredible levels of solidarity, but how long will this last? We have very limited resources and on the economic level, we will face a catastrophe.
Have any measures been taken on the release of Palestinians prisoners?
Prisons are extremely crowded and many Palestinian prisoners already died because of medical negligence. In the context of the pandemic, Israel announced with a public statement the release of thousands of Israeli prisoners, including serious criminals. However, despite the multiple requests by human rights organisations and the ICRC to release Palestinian minors, women, the elderly and sick people, Israel didn’t release one single person. If the pandemic arrives in prisons it will soon become a humanitarian disaster.
What should be, from your perspective, the contribution of the international community in reacting to the risks linked to this pandemic?
The international community should take this opportunity to call on Israel for an end to the closure on the Gaza Strip, to enable the proper functioning of its health system in face of the pandemic but also to end once and for all the unjust restrictions imposed on the movement of goods and individuals. It is also crucial to remind Israel of its legal obligations as the occupying power, and lastly, to act in effective cooperation for the safety of all. This virus doesn’t know any border, race, gender, age, skin colour or religion: cooperation is essential.
How do you see the world after COVID-19?
We stand at a very critical moment for the world and we now have to choose: confrontation or cooperation. In these critical times, when the universe is extremely fragile, humanity must cooperate. Nobody was prepared to face such a crisis and we must face it all together.
The virus poses major questions to humanity, on the ideological, philosophical, societal and economic level. We have to be aware that the world we know, will no longer be the same. Think about the two concepts at the very centre of our societies: individual freedoms and free market. Who can talk about these anymore?
We, as humanity, have to create a new world. This is a crucial time for questions and reflection, but whatever the shape of the new world will be, we must keep human rights and human dignity at the centre.