On 18 March 2021, Al Mezan Center for Human Rights (Al Mezan) held a press conference to mark the launch of its annual report on access to economic, social and cultural rights in the Gaza Strip. Members of the press were invited to cover the press conference at Al Mezan’s main office in Gaza City.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Issam Younis, Al Mezan’s General Director, stressed that the past year had been tremendously challenging for Palestinians, notably because the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip had continued to escalate while the underlying causes remained intact. The main drivers of this unabated crisis are found in Israel’s ongoing 13-year blockade and closure, repeated military attacks on the civilian population and properties, and stringent movement restrictions in the access-restricted areas (or “buffer zone”) unilaterally imposed by Israel within Gaza’s territory—all practices that violate Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law.
During the press conference, Mr. Younis warned of the likelihood that Gaza’s humanitarian conditions would further aggravate: “the serious deterioration in the situation of economic, social and cultural rights will worsen as long as the Israeli closure and blockade and the intra-Palestinian political division are not brought to an end and the severe consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are not effectively addressed.” Mr. Younis also touched on the unprecedented health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and noted that Israel, in its capacity as Occupying Power, has the legal duty to ensure that vaccines are equally and fairly provided to the whole population living under its control. Further, he reiterated Al Mezan’s calls on the international community to exert pressure on Israel to end its illegal closure of the Gaza Strip and to uphold Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement, among other integral rights.
Mr. Bassem Abu Jrai, a researcher at Al Mezan, gave an overview of the report’s most striking findings, including figures on Israeli attacks against Palestinian civilian individuals and properties and on the denial of Israeli-issued exit permits for Palestinian medical patients requiring care outside Gaza. Mr. Abu Jrai also outlined the issues surrounding the management of the COVID-19 pandemic in Gaza, such as the fact that only 13 percent of the population underwent COVID-19 tests and that lockdown measures directly affected approximately 158,611 daily-wage laborers and their dependents.
Regarding the economic impact of the pandemic, Mr. Abu Jrai highlighted some very disturbing data concerning unemployment and productivity rates, levels of food insecurity, acute housing shortages, environmental pollution, and the dramatic conditions of water and sanitation structures.
In addition to providing a comprehensive and detailed report on these as well as other issues related to economic, social and cultural rights in the Gaza Strip, the publication puts forth a number of recommendations and calls for action addressed to the international community and Palestinian duty-bearers.
With the report only published in full in Arabic, Al Mezan is pleased to offer an executive summary in English. This summary contains the most relevant information gathered by Al Mezan's research team, as well as a detailed list of final recommendations addressed to different international and local actors.
- Israeli military conduct entailed attacks on civilians and civilian property that amounted to excessive and disproportionate force and led to the killing of six Palestinians, including two children; the injury of 58 Palestinians, including 16 children and one woman; and the detention of 47 Palestinians, including six children. Israel also tightened its blockade and closure measures of the Gaza Strip, notably in tandem to the initial spread of COVID-19.
- The Israeli military also carried out repeated attacks against Palestinian farmers in the access restricted areas (or “buffer zone”) located on Palestinian territory. The military pumped large amounts of water onto Palestinian agricultural lands; conducted aerial spraying of toxic herbicides over cultivated crops; conducted 54 raids and incursions into the Palestinian lands adjacent to the separation fence, also with tanks and bulldozers; and conducted 699 attacks targeting Palestinian farmers and their properties, 612 of which used live ammunition. As a result of these attacks, 3,388,597 square meters of Palestinian agricultural land was damaged. These violations resulted in enormous economic harm to the agricultural community in the Gaza Strip, adding to the effects of the COVID-19 global recession.
- The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the vulnerabilities already existing in the service sector—particularly healthcare—caused by Israel’s closure, occupation and discriminatory policies. This greater vulnerability contributed to the wider spread of COVID-19 among Gaza’s two million residents; 41,233 people contracted the virus, resulting in 375 deaths.
- The cumulative impact of the pandemic and Israel’s unlawful policies was particularly detrimental for Gaza’s healthcare system. Despite tremendous efforts to cope with the pandemic, the critical shortage of equipment, medicines, qualified personnel and other necessities significantly limited the ability of Palestinian authorities to combat the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure adequate care for patients. For instance, the Palestinian Ministry of Health conducted PCR tests on approximately 13% of Gaza’s population, a modest percentage compared to global testing rates.
- In 2020, the Israeli authorities either rejected or delayed 31% of permit applications to leave Gaza for urgent medical treatment, after which five patients died, including one woman and two children. The Israeli forces also detained one patient had who a permit while crossing Erez. Already before the pandemic, thousands of Palestinian patients from Gaza, in particular cancer patients, struggled to receive adequate medical care and sought treatment outside the Strip through Israeli-issued exit permits, which are often arbitrarily denied or delayed. Further undermining the freedom of movement of patients, the Palestinian Authority suspended all coordination with Israel, including cooperation on these permits, between May-November 2020, in response to Israel’s plans to formally annex parts of the occupied West Bank.
- At the end of 2020, the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines for the occupied Palestinian territory had not yet been planned. The competent authorities were therefore only able to combat the virus by introducing and imposing precautionary measures, such as physical distancing, compulsory quarantining in specified centers or at home, curfew, and lockdown measures. However, while necessary to combat the pandemic, these measures had negative repercussions on the economy—as exemplified by increased rates of unemployment and food insecurity—and on the mental health of the population, by exacerbating feelings of fear, anxiety and other stress-related conditions like adjustment disorders, especially during quarantine.
- The economic downturn resulting from the pandemic is illustrated by the contraction of the employed workforce, which fell from 16,830 workers in 2019 to 13,770 in 2020; the decrease in production capacity, down from 20% to 14.5% in the same period; and by the shuttering of 557 factories between 2010 and 2020.
- Industrial actors lacked the governmental support needed to save their industries from the effects of the pandemic. Actions taken by the Palestinian Ministry of National Economy included 50% reduction of both customs duty on industrial input materials and licensing fees but were not sufficient to compensate the losses of industrial actors. In parallel, the tight restrictions on the movement of goods into and out of the Gaza Strip imposed by Israel continued to undermine the productive capacity and growth prospects of these industrial actors.
- The tourism industry and the antiquities sector remained subject to the negative effects of Israel’s blockade and closure, with international archeologists denied access to work with their partners in Gaza. Both the number of workers in the sector and that of (domestic) tourists decreased as a result of the combined effect of Israel’s policies and the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Authorities in Gaza showed no interest in supporting the tourism sector and instead employed 16 out of the 18 hotels in the Gaza Strip as quarantine centers, causing 1,000 workers to lose their jobs. Also, the pandemic and the ensuing lockdown measures resulted in the closing of 300 restaurants, 400 tourist resorts, 10 amusement parks, four clubs, and four zoos.
- The marriage rate rose by 21.1%, growing from 17,270 wedding ceremonies in 2019 to 20,919, in 2020. This significant growth could be explained by the lockdown measures, including the closing of ceremony halls and the ban on social gatherings, as they enabled people to get married without the high costs of wedding ceremonies and the usual expenses.
- The unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip stood at 46.6%, with the two highest rates recorded in the districts of Deir al-Balah (53%) and Rafah (52%). Young people with an intermediate diploma or higher constitute the great majority of Gaza’s unemployed workforce: 54% of adults aged 19-29 with these qualifications or higher are unemployed, and over two-thirds of them are women.
- Daily workers lost their jobs as a result of the lockdown measures, and only 5-10% of them received modest relief payments that were insufficient to address the consequences of their losses.
- In 2020, only 5,000 workers received a one-time relief payment of 700 NIS by Wakfet Izz Fund. The process leading up to this payment did not involve a clear specification of prioritized groups. Six thousand workers affected by the pandemic were set to receive the same amount of relief from the World Bank, with a plan to benefit 1,000 such workers every month. However, at the end of 2020, only about 1,000 workers benefited from the World Bank’s relief payments. Meanwhile, 80,000 daily workers benefited from a one-time payment of 100 USD from the State of Qatar. These urgent relief payments fall short of providing the protection due for poor Palestinians in Gaza and those impoverished by the pandemic, especially at a time of rising costs of essential services like electricity and gas.
- The burden of these alarming economic consequences was borne mainly by women, as unemployment, confinement and stay-at-home measures led to a significant increase in gender-based violence. In general, the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on major social protection deficits primarily affecting workers, women and the elderly, among other groups.
- Older people were also negatively affected by the COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza, particularly those without pension benefits. It is worth noting that Palestinians ages 60 and over made up 78% of the COVID-19 death toll in the Gaza Strip.
- People with physical disabilities who contracted COVID-19 were at greater risk if healthcare workers could not reach them. Medical teams assisted people with disabilities who arrived from abroad and went into the designated quarantine centers.
- Poverty and food insecurity rates stood at 64% and 62.2% respectively, with some 80% of the population still dependent on foreign aid. In the meantime, the Palestinian Ministry of Social Development continued to cut its financial support to people facing extreme poverty and failed to meet the retroactive payments owed this group.
- The escalation in the humanitarian crisis led to increased theft and begging. The Palestinian Ministry of Social Development intervened to tackle these trends, for instance, by providing support to 257 beggars and monitoring 66 individuals who attempted suicide, 57 cases of unknown parentage, 249 children at the local SOS Children’s Village, and 308 cases of family break-up.
- The housing deficit also persisted through 2020, with 96,000 people needing housing. Out of the 12,063 housing units destroyed during the 2014 Israeli military offensive against the Gaza Strip, 10,761 have been reconstructed, whereas the rehabilitation of damaged houses reached 104,003 of 179,205. Although the sum pledged to support the reconstruction of destroyed houses totaled 395.2 million USD, this amount is still 56 million USD below the sum needed for reconstructing all the destroyed housing units. Similarly, a sum of 93.7 million USD is still needed to cover the rehabilitation costs of another 75,202 damaged houses. The Israeli forces also continued attacking Palestinian residential and civilian properties in 2020, damaging 75 housing units. The continued restrictions on the freedom of movement of goods and services imposed by Israel have prevented construction materials from entering Gaza. This, together with the rising costs of land and construction materials, further perpetuates the housing deficits.
- Palestinians’ access to safe, clean and sufficient water remains hindered by many protracting factors, including chronic electricity shortage and decreasing household incomes; 97% of the water in Gaza does not meet WHO standards of chloride and nitrate percentages.
- No substantial progress was made in terms of the environment, with efforts aimed at improving public health and water infrastructure being hindered by demanding financial constraints. Al Mezan’s extensive survey of local municipalities shows that 25 of them suffer from complex crises since 2008 as a result of Israel’s blockade and closure and the Palestinian political division.
- Solid and hazardous waste collection operations were hampered by COVID-19 safety measures in place for relevant workers. Gaza’s Environment Quality Authority issued specific instructions to municipalities and citizens on how to manage waste during periods of home quarantine. Overall, the combined effect of the Israeli closure and the pandemic further undermined the ability of municipalities and citizens to safely manage and dispose of waste.
- Israel continued its restrictions on Gaza’s digital space by controlling its frequency spectrum and limiting the entry of technical equipment, including that needed to operate 3G and 4G technologies. Meanwhile, the worsening economic conditions in Gaza have further undermined the ICT infrastructure to the extent that, for example, the internet connection speed fell from 14 megabytes/second in 2018 to eight in 2020.
- The COVID-19 outbreak led to the worst education crisis in Gaza’s contemporary history, compounded by a chronic lack of electricity shortage. While 65.17% of all students participated in online classes, 34.83% could not do the same and did not enjoy access to education. Education in Gaza was significantly disrupted, with institutions resorting to online learning, ultimately making low-income students without the necessary equipment unable to attend classes.
- The number of cultural events and activities decreased due to lockdown and social distancing measures. For example, the number of published books registered with the Palestinian Ministry of Culture in 2020 was significantly lower than in previous years.
The following are the main recommendations in the report:
- The international community must honor its moral and legal obligations towards the Palestinian people by calling on Israel to swiftly, effectively and unconditionally lift the closure and blockade on Gaza; to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law; and to allow the free movement of people, goods, and services into and out of the Gaza Strip. To this end, the international community must take action to ensure accountability and justice for all violations of international law in the occupied Palestinian territory.
- The international community must enhance its support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to enable the agency to meet the enormous humanitarian needs resulting from Israeli policies and the COVID-19 outbreak.
- The World Health Organization and the international community must collaborate to secure and supply, without restriction, COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians in Gaza; to ensure that Gaza’s healthcare sector has all needed medical supplies and equipment, including testing tools; to support the sustainable growth of healthcare, including through increasing aid; and to ensure the freedom of movement of medical staff, relief teams, and patients, as well as of drugs, medical equipment, and other healthcare necessities. Local authorities must also be supported in keeping the outbreak under control.
- The international community must do more to ensure the housing deficits in Gaza are effectively addressed, including through supporting the parties responsible for reconstructing properties destroyed in the 2014 bombardment, as well as housing problems arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, especially those faced by the low-income population. To this end, the international community must urge Israel to allow the free movement of construction materials and refrain from attacking Palestinian residential and civilian properties.
- Palestinian authorities must proceed with holding elections in order to improve democratic representation and participation, ensure accountability, and combat corruption.
- Palestinian factions must respect human rights and contribute to the promotion of Palestinians’ economic, social, and cultural rights, including through mainstreaming these rights in election programs, in order to ensure equality, transitional justice, and rule of law.
- The competent Palestinian authorities must follow progressive fiscal policies, including debt relief and tax reduction, in order to support economic progress, industrial growth, and employment in the face of the dire consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Palestinian Ministries of Finance and National Economy must develop different and rapid response programs to meet the needs of economic actors adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, including through increased support for essential services such as electricity, water, sanitation, and internet.
- The Palestinian Ministry of Education must work with universities to alleviate the latter’s financial crisis amidst students’ growing inability to pay their tuition fees.
- The Palestinian Water Authority must align and enhance efforts to improve the situation of environmental health, public health, and water and sanitation infrastructure, including through working with municipalities to alleviate the latter’s financial challenges and deficit in revenue.
- The competent Palestinian authorities must develop plans for safe and effective solid and hazardous waste collection.
- The competent Palestinian authorities must support the tourism sector, including by stopping all violations of Palestinians’ cultural rights in Gaza, addressing the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on domestic tourism, and compensating tourism businesses for their losses through the reduction of tax and licensing fees.
- The Palestinian Ministry of Social Development and Ministry of Work must co-launch social protection programs, provide support to senior citizens and people with disabilities, especially those adversely affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and adjust minimum wage requirements.
- The private and third sectors must coordinate efforts to create psychological support, child entertainment, and public awareness programs to alleviate the adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Relevant authorities must respect the rights to peaceful assembly and association, including through annulling any restrictions and criminalizing violation of these rights.
- Palestinians in Gaza must respect COVID-19 safety measures issued by competent authorities, who must in term ensure support for low-income households and to people who lost their income due to the pandemic.
1 This percentage regards those who are jobless but actively search for a job and show willingness to take one, and does not cover unemployed people who have not searched for employment opportunities.