By Nada Elia
One post has been going viral on social media, that asks: “Dear World, how’s the lockdown?’ Signed: Gaza.” The suggestion is that people in Italy, Spain, France, or the U.S., now know how Palestinians in Gaza live. The post has even been shared by Palestinians from Gaza itself, as well as by Arabs in various parts of the world. Writing about the newly-imposed restrictions on travel and large gatherings in Europe, as well as the horrific reality of having to do a triage of patients in overwhelmed hospitals in Italy, Ahmed Abbas asked: “How can I not think of Gaza?”
Speaking for myself, as someone who does think a lot about Gaza, I can say this much: I live just outside of Seattle, that is, the U.S. epicenter of the COVID-19 epidemic, and I fit in the high risk category, since I have asthma, as well as high blood pressure–the latter being now suspected as an aggravating circumstance, because a disproportionate number of fatalities apparently also had high blood pressure. I am self-quarantining, and am out of my staples: brown rice, lentils, and chickpeas, essential to my vegan diet. Nevertheless, while I understand the impulse to remind the world that Gaza has been under lockdown for thirteen years, I have found the meme comparing my current circumstances with the 13-year siege on Gaza unnerving, and am compelled to point out some significant differences, which Abbas indeed alludes to.
I still have electricity. That means I am not reading by candle light, my internet is on 24 hours a day, my fridge is running, as are all my electric appliances, from dishwasher to microwave. It also means my freezer is full, so while I may run out of fresh greens, I do have frozen spinach. I expect to have electricity throughout this pandemic.
Can we talk about water? As in, water is life? I can run the water for as long as I want while washing my hands. This morning, I soaked in a bath tub. The water in Gaza is unfit to drink, and itself the carrier of germs and diseases. All the studies that “predict” that by 2020, Gaza will be unlivable hinge on the level of water pollution and contamination. And yes, we are already in 2020.
I will not be shot at by a sniper for stepping out of my house. Even in the most stringent of quarantine cases, people can still get to a hospital. In Gaza, the hospitals are barely functional, lacking basic supplies. Obtaining a “humanitarian permit” from Israel to get treatment outside of the besieged strip is a tortuous process, so long that patients sometimes die while awaiting the permit. If they do get it, young children can sometimes leave, but without the reassuring company of their parents.
I can work from home. Most employers are now asking employees who can to work online, and while this may not be ideal, it is an option. I do not want to minimize the severity of the crisis in the US, and understand that many in the service industry cannot work from home, and millions will lose their income. The U.S. has no safety net, no universal healthcare, and illnesses are a primary cause of bankruptcy. But I also keep in mind that in Gaza, seventy percent of the population is unemployed.
Alarmist scenarios in the U.S. speak of weeks of social distancing. We are inconvenienced by the fact that we are unable to reschedule postponed events to a specific date in the near future yet. Gaza has been under a medieval siege for 13 years, with no relief in sight.
Another key difference lies in the fact that nobody blames Seattle, or the Bay Area, for bringing the virus onto itself. In the good-guy-bad-guy binary, COVID-19 is the bad guy, and people getting sick are the innocent good guys, who do not deserve to die. Even if they have been irresponsible, even if they have traveled, and partied, and hugged, and not washed their hands. The population of Gaza, on the other hand, is often presented as having somewhat brought the siege upon itself. Despite Israel’s violation of international law and the human rights of Palestinian refugees, Israel is still, in the eyes of many, “the good guy” defending itself from the Palestinians. We still hear, over and over again, that the real reason Gaza is under a siege that has been accurately described as incremental genocide is “Hamas.” As if, if it weren’t for Hamas, Israel would allow the refugees to return to their stolen homes and lands.
And the last item in this reality check? On top of the siege, on top of already empty shelves, and the impossibility to travel, and poverty, and unemployment, and water and soil contamination, and the lack of the basic necessities, Gaza now has to deal with the threat of the novel coronavirus. Last week, Israel allowed all of 200 test kits into Gaza, for a population of two million, and it did so because, in the words of the Israeli Commander for Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories, “Preventing the spread of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip and preventing an outbreak in the Judea and Samaria territories are of foremost Israeli interest.” The article this revolting quote comes from, titled “Will the Coronavirus quiet the Gaza Strip,” perfectly illustrates Israel’s utter dehumanization of the Palestinians, viewing even the fatal illness as an opportunity for Israel to have a reprieve from the people in Gaza asserting their human rights through protests at the border.
So please, let’s stop circulating the “Dear World” post. It is offensive to compare our circumstances to those of the besieged Palestinians in Gaza.