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Does Israel Have the Right to Cage Two Million People in a Coronavirus-Ravaged Prison Camp?

For thirteen years, Israel has kept two million Palestinians in Gaza chained inside the world’s largest open-air prison camp. Now the global COVID-19 pandemic is bearing down on the occupied enclave. What will happen if thousands of desperate civilians try to escape?

An Israeli army officer opens a gate in the border fence to allow a column of tanks and armored bulldozers to advance into the Gaza Strip on October 19, 2006. David Silverman / Getty

The COVID-19 pandemic has strained the capacities of even the wealthiest countries. For the two million inhabitants of Gaza — most of whom are children under the age of eighteen — an outbreak would spell catastrophe.

The narrow coastal strip is among the most densely populated areas on the planet, making “effective self-isolation” there “nearly impossible.” Thirteen years of Israeli blockade compounded by three large-scale military assaults have driven its infrastructure and health care system to “the brink of collapse.”

There are only eighty-seven ICU beds with ventilators in all of Gaza, many of which are already in use. A significant proportion of essential drugs are at less than a month’s supply and testing capacity is extremely limited. As of April 12, thirteen cases had been confirmed. Should containment efforts fail, humanitarian officials predict “a disaster of gigantic proportions,” a “tipping point,” a “nightmare scenario” bringing “untold human suffering.”

For Israel, the prospect of contagion in Gaza conjures a “nightmare scenario” of its own: “masses of Palestinians rushing the border fence to save themselves from the raging disease in the besieged enclave.” Faced with “a flood of people at the border fence,” Israel would try to “halt attempted infiltrations.” But in a column for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth, veteran military correspondent Alex Fishman outlined the political dilemma this would pose:

These will not be violent demonstrators but frightened and helpless civilians, many of whom might be infected and the military response will have to be a non-violent one because Israel cannot claim it has any legitimacy to open fire on sick civilians.

Unfortunately, precedent gives reason to doubt this judgment.

When small groups assembled along Gaza’s perimeter in 2015 to protest Israel’s blockade, Israeli journalists reported that the possibility “of tens of thousands of unarmed Palestinians marching toward the border fence is the cause of many a nightmare for the Israeli leadership.” Then, as now, analysts pondered “[w]hat will happen if thousands of Palestinians march on the fence, knock it down and continue their march into Israel? Will Israel respond with gunfire that will lead to a massacre?”

This question was answered in 2018, as Israel responded to overwhelmingly nonviolent demonstrations against the blockade by “systematically targeting civilians” with sniper rifles. A United Nations Commission of Inquiry found that Israeli forces intentionally shot children, medical workers, journalists, and people with disabilities. These armed attacks were strongly condemned by the international community, but no sanctions were applied.

Israel, with the help of its supporters abroad (including in mainstream media outlets), diluted popular indignation through a dual strategy of falsely depicting the demonstrations as violent while directing snipers to cripple and maim rather than outright murder thousands of unarmed protestors. In just the first two months of protests, at least 110 demonstrators were killed and more than 3,600 injured with live ammunition. (“I brought in seven-eight knees in one day,” a sharpshooter recalled with pride.)

It is far from clear, therefore, that Israel would recoil from “open[ing] fire on sick civilians.”

But for the sake of argument, let us assume with Fishman that, in the event of a coronavirus outbreak in Gaza, the threat of international censure would limit Israel to “nonviolent” measures to stop Gazans crossing the perimeter fence. Incidentally, this scenario presumes that effective “nonviolent” measures to prevent infiltration exist, which would make mockery of Israel’s justification for resort to force since 2018. What would we make of such a policy? If international calls to end the Gaza closure are ignored, and Israel’s blockade remains in force, would Israel have the right to obstruct Gazans fleeing a COVID-19 emergency?

Consider that, if Gaza is perhaps uniquely ill-equipped to cope with an epidemic, this is primarily because Israel’s blockade has destroyed its critical infrastructure and extinguished its economy; that international law and human rights authorities, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, have uniformly characterized Israel’s blockade as unlawful “collective punishment”; that Israel, as the occupying power in Gaza, has a legal duty to provide for and ensure the welfare of Gaza’s inhabitants; and, finally, that Israel has transformed Gaza into what Israeli as well as international officials term a “prison camp,” at a time when human rights organizations are calling around the world for the release of prisoners to prevent infection while Israel has implemented this measure in its domestic jails.

It is surely arguable that, even were Israel not responsible for the situation in Gaza, it would still bear a human obligation to ameliorate a public health crisis there, so far as its capacities allowed. But given that, if Gazans are facing an unprecedented catastrophe, it is Israel’s criminal policies that have caused this, Israel’s responsibility is qualitatively greater. In light of these circumstances, can it be doubted that Israel would be in grave breach of its legal as well as moral obligations were it to seek by any means to prevent Gazans escaping “from . . . raging disease in the besieged enclave”?

If accepted, however, this conclusion immediately exposes how warped has been the reaction to Israel’s violent suppression of the mass protests in Gaza since March 2018. Israel argued that it deployed only such force as was strictly necessary in order to prevent protestors from breaching the fence. Israel’s critics charged, on the contrary, that its use of force was “disproportionate” or “excessive” in relation to this objective, and also alleged that Israel violated the principle of distinction by intentionally targeting civilians. These criticisms implicitly legitimized the use of “proportionate,” “moderate,” and “discriminate” force against the demonstrators. All parties to these controversies thus proceeded from a common premise: that Israel had the right to use force to prevent Gazans from crossing the perimeter fence. The dispute came down to: how much? But this is as if to say that Israel has the right to forcibly encage the two million people of Gaza in a “prison camp” ravaged by COVID-19.

Israel also justified its resort to force in Gaza since March 2018 on the grounds that the demonstrators posed a threat to its soldiers stationed along the perimeter. Critics disputed that a sufficient threat existed but accepted the premise that, if protestors did place in imminent danger a sniper’s life, then Israel would be permitted to target them. But this is as if to say that, if Israel unlawfully confines the two million inhabitants of Gaza in a death-trap and seals the exits as they succumb en masse to COVID-19, and then Palestinians deploy whatever primitive weapons are at their disposal in a desperate bid to secure relief, or else physically confront their jailers in a last-ditch effort to break through the cordon that is strangling them, Israel would be entitled to target them in “self-defense.

It cannot be argued that a COVID-19 emergency would create a new legal situation, because Gaza is already experiencing a “chronic humanitarian crisis” — indeed, this ongoing disaster is the reason Gaza is so vulnerable to a COVID-19 epidemic. In a macabre irony, a tweet from Gaza that went viral on the internet asked: “Dear world, how does it feel to be quarantined? Yours sincerely, 14-years besieged Gaza.” Already in 2018, Gaza’s unemployment rate was probably the world’s highest, most of the population was dependent upon food aid, 39 percent of households lived in poverty, one in ten children were stunted from chronic malnutrition, and fully 96 percent of the tap water was contaminated. The UN warned as far back as 2015 that Gaza might be “unliveable” by 2020. Israeli military intelligence agreed, whereas a subsequent UN update judged the projection overly optimistic.

The question posed by Gazans who have risked life and limb since March 2018 to break Israel’s stranglehold, and the question posed by the prospect of mass flight from a coronavirus epidemic, are thus one and the same: Does Israel have the right to forcibly encage a civilian population it illegally occupies and illegally blockades in a space it has rendered unlivable?