Gaza medics switching focus from border protests to coronavirus

GAZA CITY (Reuters) – Scarcely two years ago Gaza’s border with Israel was a deadly front line, with black smoke swirling around thousands of Palestinian protesters as they faced off against Israeli troops firing live ammunition.

The border fence is much quieter now in the run-up to the two-year anniversary on March 30 of The Great March of Return – protests by Palestinians seeking to regain access to land, now in Israel, from which their ancestors fled or were forced to flee during the country’s creation in 1948.

And with the highly contagious coronavirus spreading, organizers and Palestinian militant factions are discussing whether to cancel or scale down commemorative events.

Whatever they decide, Gaza’s medical facilities have already switched their focus from protest casualties to the pandemic.

With nine coronavirus cases already confirmed in the Gaza Strip, hospitals that were once overwhelmed by gunshot wounds and amputations are now gearing up for a very different challenge in a densely populated, coastal enclave of two million Palestinians, many living in refugee camps.

A new quarantine center has been set up in Rafah, near the border with Egypt, and the 42-square-metre (452-square-feet)tents donated by the World Health Organisation that once served as border Trauma Stabilisation Points have been moved to tackle the new threat.

“All of the tents and medical supplies that had been used during the marches of return have been employed in the ministry’s measures to protect our people against coronavirus,” Gaza health ministry spokesman Ashraf Al-Qidra said.

WHO’s head of office for the occupied Palestinian territories, Gerald Rockenschaub, toured the new Rafah facilities last week as his team delivered lab-testing supplies and personal protective equipment.

“Measures have been put in place but Gaza is a very challenging environment, it is a very crowded environment,” he said. “There are shortages everywhere, in medication, in electricity and in supplies. We are trying to address this.”


It not yet clear what will happen to the weekly border protests that came to redefine the modern era of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the incompatibility of crowded protests with new health realities is not lost on march organizers. “There is a debate and it is more likely large gatherings that had been planned will be canceled,” one senior organizer told Reuters.

Gaza medical officials say 215 Palestinians were killed in the two years of border protests, with another 8,000 suffering gunshot wounds, 88 percent of them to the limbs.

During that period one Israeli soldier was killed on the border during the demonstrations, by a sniper.

In 2019 U.N. Human Rights Council investigators said Israeli forces may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, with children and paramedics among the fatalities.

Israel defended its response, describing the protests as riots and saying it faced attacks by militants instigated and organized by the Islamist militant movement Hamas that rules Gaza.

Last week Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said soldiers remained vigilant against attempts to breach the fence. “We continue to assess the situation and continue to monitor what Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza are doing,” he said.

The stated aims of the protests were an end to the Israeli-led blockade on Gaza and for its refugees to have the right to return to lands in Israel where their ancestors once lived.

Israel refuses any such right of return, fearing it would lose its Jewish majority. It cites security for the blockade, after the takeover of Gaza in 2007 by Hamas, which is regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.

In Gaza the scars of the protests are everywhere, and remain a source of controversy.

“I don’t think they achieved anything,” said Mohannad Al-Aswad, 30, who says he lost his right leg after being struck by an Israeli bullet in 2018. Once a construction worker, he now sells hot drinks at a street stall.

“I ruined my life, that of my wife and of my children,” Aswad said at his home in Sheikh Radwan. “They tell us to be strong…but my life was destroyed, I can’t fool myself.”

But Hamas official Ismail Radwan said the protests forced a relaxation of the blockade of Gaza. “The occupation wouldn’t have agreed if it wasn’t because of the marches,” he said.

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Gantz angers supporters as Israel moves towards unity government

Opposition leader cites the coronavirus epidemic as the reason for his decision to pursue a unity government.

Israel appeared headed for a unity government on Friday after opposition leader Benny Gantz moved towards an agreement with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, disappointing voters who had hoped to bring down the right-wing leader.

Gantz was elected parliamentary speaker on Thursday with support from Netanyahu’s Likud and allied parties, angering many of his own partners over the possibility he could form an alliance with a leader who is under criminal indictment.


  • Israel’s ex-army chief Gantz gets shot at forming new government

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Gantz, a former military chief, cited the coronavirus epidemic as the reason for his decision. Israel, with 3,000 cases of the disease and 10 deaths, is under partial lockdown.

The shock move splintered Gantz’s centrist Blue and White coalition of three parties just 13 months after it came into existence as a grouping of Netanyahu opponents intent on bringing down Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

It also drew an angry response from some among the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who turned out to support Gantz’s coalition in three elections in the past year. Some commentators accused the former general of caving into Netanyahu.

“It makes me feel terrible. It’s exactly what I did not want to happen, to see Gantz actually partner with Netanyahu,” said Tami Golan, 46, who voted for Gantz in all three elections.

“I understand the coronavirus makes for a special situation, but I can’t help but feel disappointed – we might not be done with Netanyahu,” Golan said.

Gantz, 60, expressed regret on Friday that his decision had split his centrist alliance, but said dragging the country towards a fourth election would distract from fighting the coronavirus and aiding the economy.

“[We] will make every effort to establish a national emergency government. We will take care of the health crisis. We will lift the country out of economic trauma,” Gantz said in a statement.

“I am at peace because I did what my nation needs,” he added. “This is the time for leaders to choose what is right and put the lingering issues and personal scores aside.”

At least one member of Gantz’s own Israel Resilience Party came out against him on Friday – a lawmaker from Israel’s Arab Druze minority.

“A leader does not betray his principles and his electorate … I will not sit one day under the corrupt [premier],” Gadeer Mreeh wrote on Twitter.

But with Netanyahu’s coalition of right-wing parties needing only three more seats to reach a majority in the 120-member parliament, the early defection from Gantz’s 15-strong faction was unlikely to put a dent in moves towards a unity government.

United States President Donald Trump called his close ally Netanyahu on Friday to congratulate him “on the fact that he would form a government under his premiership”, Netanyahu said on his Arabic-language Twitter account.

During the campaign for the March 2 election, Gantz had ruled out serving with Netanyahu, citing the prime minister’s looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Netanyahu denies the charges.

But Gantz has lacked enough support on the centre and left to form a coalition after being asked by President Reuven Rivlin to try to form a government following the election.

Netanyahu, 70, had proposed a unity government to tackle the coronavirus, promising to step down as prime minister within an agreed period, with Gantz then taking over.

Gantz’s move on Thursday opened up the possibility of such a “rotation” deal, but there has been no formal announcement that such an agreement had been reached.

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Israel's Netanyahu says complete lockdown unavoidable unless new infections ebb

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday there would be “no avoiding” a complete lockdown of the country without a decrease in the rate of new coronavirus infections.

Israel has seen five deaths and close to 2,400 cases so far.

Citizens hoping for a stroll or jog were instructed earlier on Wednesday to stay within 100 metres (110 yards) of their homes for a week under tightened restrictions to curb the contagion.

The new restrictions further reduced public transport, required employers to check workers for fever and set sanctions for people who defy rules.

Israelis have been instructed to stay home where possible, schools have been shut and many businesses have closed, prompting more than 500,000 lay-offs.

“If we do not see an immediate improvement in the trendline there will be no avoiding a full closure,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks. “(The decision) is a matter of a few days (away). And we are making all of the preparations for it.”

The sight of people, out for fresh air, jogging and congregating on city streets has alarmed health authorities. The new 100-metre limit is meant to end such activity.

The private sector has had to limit employees at the workplace to 10 people or 30% of the company’s workforce, and most of the public sector has been put on leave.

Israelis, though, could still drive themselves to work or to shops for essentials under the new restrictions, and food delivery services were operating.

Penalties ranging from fines to a six-month jail term were set for anyone defying the orders.

Israel’s central bank on Tuesday projected an economic contraction of 2.5% in 2020 as long as the partial lockdown eases by the end of April.

In his remarks, Netanyahu said his caretaker government was setting up an economic plan to help businesses and the self-employed, and that a team was set-up to prepare for the day after the virus ends.

The coronavirus crisis comes as Israel is grappling with political deadlock after three inconclusive elections in less than a year. Netanyahu’s centrist political rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, has been tasked with forming a new coalition government.

But neither Gantz nor Netanyahu won a stable parliamentary majority in the March 2 election and negotiations to form a unity government comprising both their parties have come to a halt in the past few days.

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