Who could have imagined just a few days ago that Europeans would be confined to their homes and become persona non grata all over the world? It is as if the blockade of Gaza has come to us, even if the situation there is incomparably more dramatic.
I should have been in Tunis Saturday March 14 to participate in the closing ceremony of Israeli Apartheid Week. I had invited the Palestinian researcher and documentalist Tarek Barki to give a lecture entitled “We Were and Still Are.. Here” which tells the past and the present of the ethnically cleansed Palestinian villages refuting the Zionist formula “a land without people… ” But by the end of the previous week, disturbing news about the spread of the Coronavirus in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa was starting to accumulate. Death in my soul, I resolved, Monday, March 9, with my friends, to postpone this long-awaited lecture to a later date. Since then, bad news has continued to pour in at an infernal rate.
Two days later, one of my colleagues sent me an article explaining that the coronavirus is coming at an exponential speed: gradually, then suddenly. The author presented and analyzed the curves of the evolution of the epidemic in the world, which left no doubt. Up to a few days delay, these exponential curves seem almost identical for at least three regions: Wuhan in China, Italy and France. Martin Hirsch, Director General of Public Assistance-Hospitals of Paris (AP-HP), declared in Le Monde on Saturday March 14 that “in the memory of professionals, the AP-HP was not confronted with a phenomenon of such a scale with such speed and such high complexity. I would even say such violence.”
In one day there are 368 new deaths in Italy, and the Italian healthcare system is visibly starting to collapse. The American President suspends Europeans’ entry to the United States, saying, “Europe is the new China.” The French president decreed general confinement in France. “We are at war… [T]he enemy is there, invisible, elusive, advancing. And that requires our general mobilization.”
The African continent, which at first seemed spared by the epidemic, is also facing a crisis. Yesterday, there were hundreds of new cases from Egypt to Morocco to South Africa and across the Maghreb schools are closed.
Confined to my home in the Parisian suburbs, trying to focus my attention on my mathematical research, I find myself regularly consulting the news that confirms the exponential spread of the epidemic in the world. I worry about my relatives and my friends and the countries that cannot afford to cope with this disaster. I am struck by the vulnerability of the opulent western way of life. Can the savage capitalism that dominates the world and enslaves the overwhelming majority of human beings for the benefit of a tiny minority survive this crisis? The virus at this stage seems to ignore borders and to treat everyone equally. Leaders of the world’s greatest powers have been infected. But the situation could change over time and poor countries, particularly African countries, could suffer more than others.
All of a sudden, memories of the 2014 Israeli war against Gaza come back to me vividly. I see myself again during the months of July and August of this year, locked up at home to follow and relay the evolution of the situation described by the UN and NGO officials present on the spot as “unprecedented humanitarian disaster.” According to the UN, 2,189 Palestinians died including at least 1,486 civilians, among them 269 women. At least 538 Palestinian children were killed in Gaza: 341 boys and 197 girls, between one week and 17 years of age. Sixty-eight percent of them were 12 years of age or younger. At least 142 Palestinian families lost three or more members in the same attack. According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 11,100 Palestinians, including 3,374 children, 2,088 women and 410 elderly people, were injured.
Half a million Palestinians were displaced inside the Gaza Strip, representing 28% of the population. Subjected to incessant bombardment despite the announced truces, Gazans did not in fact have any truly safe place to protect themselves because among the UN buildings (including 84 schools) intended in principle to serve as a refuge, some were the targets of the Israeli army. The UN has estimated that around 20,000 homes were destroyed or severely damaged during the Israeli attacks. The sole power plant was destroyed by Israeli bombardment, which shut down the water supply system, and a dozen hospitals were damaged.
How can I not think of the hospitals in Gaza overwhelmed by the wounded arriving in waves at the rhythm of the Israeli bombardments when I see the images of hospitals in Wuhan, Lombardy and Veneto overtaken by the epidemic of Coronavirus or when I read the interview with Martin Hirsch, director general of the AP-HP, in Le Monde on Saturday March 14? To the question “have you considered an Italian scenario, where doctors are forced to prioritize among the patients to be treated?”, he replied, “there are no such instructions given to caregivers. We are working to avoid having to do what we could call `war ethics’;” the latter is a common practice in Gaza. But at least electricity is not and will not be cut in hospitals in China, Italy and France, and doctors have no shortage of stethoscopes, unlike their colleagues in Gaza.
Unicef, Unesco and Save the Children report that half a million children were unable to return to school by the start of the school year on August 24, 2014 as almost all of the schools are inaccessible. In fact, 213 schools were destroyed or damaged by the bombing of the Israeli army and 103 were transformed into shelters for displaced residents.
How can I not think of the children of Gaza when I think of the French, Italian and Tunisian children confined to their homes and deprived of school right now? But they at least are not likely to have the roofs of their houses falling on their heads like the Samouni family who lost 49 of their own in what humanitarian organizations consider a “deliberate war crime.”
Who can forget the moment when Chris Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for the Palestinian Refugees, succumbed to emotion during a live interview with Al Jazeera? He was interviewed about an attack on a UN school shelter in which at least 15 people, most of them women and children, were killed. Gunness said: “What is happening in Gaza, especially for children, is an affront to the humanity of all of us.”
How can I not think of the residents of Gaza who are prisoners of an inhuman blockade that has lasted for more than 13 years when I find myself confined to my home, forbidden to leave my house except for 5 reasons set by the government and provided that I have a certificate? But in Europe at least, we don’t have snipers to enforce this ban.
As misfortunes add up, on Monday March 16th, there were 39 Coronavirus patients in the West Bank and no infections have yet been reported in Gaza. But it is estimated that the number of confirmed cases will increase considerably. Two patients were hospitalized in solitary confinement in the West Bank after their return from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, but none currently show symptoms of the virus. In addition, 1,400 residents of Gaza are under house quarantine. If the epidemic spreads, Gaza’s medical staff and hospitals will not be able to cope. In order to treat patients with coronavirus, Gaza will have to use equipment that is prohibited from entering by Israel.
So, today more than ever, we are all Palestinians and Gaza is coming to us!
Ahmed Abbes, mathematician, research director in Paris, secretary of the French Association of Academics for Respect for International Law in Palestine (AURDIP) and coordinator of the Tunisian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (TACBI).
Published by Mondoweiss on March 18, 2020
* Now everyone knows how Gaza feels. Cartoon by Dr. Alaa Al-Laqta of Gaza