Impact of the Crisis and Humanitarian Consequences
1.1 Context and Drivers of the Crisis
Humanitarian needs in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) continue to be driven by a protracted protection crisis that leaves many Palestinians struggling to live a life with dignity. This crisis is characterized by more than 53 years of Israeli military occupation, lack of respect for international humanitarian and human rights law, internal Palestinian political divisions, and recurrent escalations of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups. 2020 witnessed a significant increase in the severity of humanitarian needs across the oPt, due to two major developments. The first is the outbreak of COVID-19: as of end-September over 50,000 Palestinians have contracted the virus and nearly 400 have died. While the mortality rate remains low by global standards (77 persons per million people), the measures imposed to contain the pandemic - including recurrent lockdowns and travel restrictions, school closures, reduction of commercial activities and mandatory quarantines - have severely undermined living conditions across the oPt. (As of mid-December, over 131,000 had contracted the virus and nearly 1,150 had died.) The World Bank forecasts that by the end of the year, the Palestinian economy will shrink by eight per cent compared to 2019.1 The proportion of poor households in the Gaza Strip will increase from 53 to 64 per cent and will more than double in the West Bank, from 14 to 30 per cent.2 The second development in 2020 is the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) unilateral decision to halt almost all bilateral contacts with Israel, in response to the Israel’s plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank.3 In this context, the PA has stopped accepting the tax clearance revenues that Israel collects on its behalf.4 Together with the economic slowdown due to the pandemic, this has resulted in the loss of 80 per cent of its income, reducing the PA’s capacity to pay salaries, deliver services and maintain its social safety nets. The no-contact policy exacerbated the impact of longstanding access restrictions, particularly for those requiring Israeli permits, or special authorization, to access workplaces, farmland and basic services. This policy also undermined Israeli-Palestinian joint efforts to contain the pandemic, which were implemented during the two months following the initial outbreak.
So far in 2020, there has been a significant decline in conflict-related violence and casualties, which are recorded mainly among young men. Between January and September, 24 Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces, compared to 91 and 229 fatalities in the equivalent periods in 2019 and 2018, respectively.
Similarly, the number of Palestinian injuries in 2020 declined by nearly 85 per cent, compared to 2019 (approximately 2,000 vs 13,000). This decline is primarily due the halt in the mass demonstrations that had been taking place along Israel’s perimeter fence around Gaza in 2018 and 2019. While the occasional shooting of projectiles and launching of incendiary balloons from Gaza towards southern Israel, and Israel’s subsequent airstrikes in Gaza continued, these did not result in casualties or further escalation. Albeit more limited than in Gaza, the West Bank too witnessed a reduction in clashes and casualties, with the number of searchand-arrest operations by Israeli forces in Palestinian localities falling by nearly 30 per cent during JanuarySeptember 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.
However, concerns about excessive use of force by Israeli soldiers resulting in the killing or serious injury of Palestinians, as well as lack of accountability for such possible violations of international law, remain.
Moreover, against the backdrop of a general deterioration in living conditions and the lack of security coordination between the PA and Israel, there remains the potential for an increase in violence, including an escalation of hostilities in Gaza, during 2021.
In the Gaza Strip, the two million Palestinians, who, for over 13 years, have been under a blockade imposed by Israel citing security concerns, have been further isolated from the external world by COVID-19 related restrictions. Since the outbreak, Israel has allowed only the most serious medical cases to exit Gaza via the Erez Crossing, a situation further complicated by the PA’s halt in the processing of applications for exit permits, as well as by the long mandatory quarantine imposed by Hamas on patients returning to Gaza.
The entry of Palestinian workers from Gaza to Israel, which resumed in 2019 after more than a decade of suspension, was halted again following the outbreak of the pandemic, resulting in the loss of some 7,000 jobs. The Egyptian-controlled crossing with Gaza (Rafah) has been largely shut down for all passengers, except for a few scheduled openings. Overall, during MarchSeptember 2020, the number of exits from Gaza, both via Israel (Erez) and via Egypt (Rafah) was about 10 per cent of the figures in the same period in 2019.
Meanwhile, the main factors driving the fragile humanitarian situation in Gaza remain in place. Although Gaza’s main crossing for goods (Kerem Shalom) has been operating as previously, the longstanding import restrictions, as well as lack of agreement and coordination between the PA and Israel, continue to impede the implementation of infrastructure projects, economic recovery and employment generation.6 Continuing insecurity discourages the 3,000 farmers who own, or work, land located up to 1,000 meters from Israel’s perimeter fence from developing agricultural livelihoods. Similarly, the fishing livelihoods of about 4,000 families continue to be disrupted by Israeli restrictions on access to the sea off the Gaza coast, in response to the Palestinians’ launching of projectiles or incendiary balloons towards Israel.7 Prolonged electricity blackouts of about 12 hours a day (the same as in 2019, but an improvement compared to 2017-2018) continue disrupting all aspects of life in Gaza, particularly the delivery of essential services.8 Finally, despite a new round of reconciliation talks launched this year, the divisions between Hamas and the Fatah-led PA remain unresolved, undermining the payment of salaries to civil servants,9 and providing for the needs of the Gaza’s population in general.
The mobility restrictions imposed since the outbreak of COVID-19 amplify the impact of pre-existing conditions on the Gazan economy: combined, they have resulted in a further increase in unemployment in the second quarter of 2020, which reached an historical high of over 49 per cent,.10 The absence of employment opportunities and low salaries also discourage people from seeking work, further reducing the already low labour force participation rate. This has declined from 41 per cent of the population in 2019 to less than 35 per cent in April-June 2020, and to a mere 15 per cent among women (people outside the labour force are not counted as unemployed).11 It is estimated that some 9,500 families in Gaza living in rented accommodation are at risk of eviction due to their inability to pay rental costs.12 In the West Bank, Palestinian households and communities in Area C, East Jerusalem and the H2 area of Hebron city continue to face a coercive environment, due to a range of longstanding Israeli policies and practices. The restrictive and discriminatory planning regime applied in Area C and in East Jerusalem prevents Palestinians from addressing basic housing, livelihood and service needs. Between January and September, 550 structures were demolished or confiscated on the grounds of a lack of building permits, displacing some 750 Palestinians, a significant increase compared with 2019. Of particular concern is the increasing application of military orders permitting the expedited demolition or seizure of properties in Area C, as well as the greater punitive fines against unauthorized construction in East Jerusalem, which has led to a significant increase in self-demolitions.Further components of the coercive environment of continuing concern are continuing attacks and intimidation by Israeli settlers, along with the authorities’ lack of adequate law enforcement.14 As of end-September, nearly 230 such incidents resulting in Palestinian injuries, or damage to their property, have been recorded, approximately the same rate as in 2019.
Historically, settler violence has facilitated the takeover of Palestinian land and the establishment of settlement outposts, without the building permits or authorization required under Israeli law. Subsequently, many of these outposts established on areas designated as public (‘state’) land have been “legalized” under Israeli legislation.15 Palestinian access to areas separated from the remainder of the West Bank by the Barrier has also deteriorated in 2020. Following the outbreak of COVID19, Palestinian access to East Jerusalem hospitals has been limited by both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities, mostly to cancer patients; in turn, this has further undermined the financial situation of these hospitals. Following a tightening of the eligibility criteria for farmers to obtain permits to access their land in the ‘Seam Zone’, the closed area behind the Barrier, some 84 per cent of such applications in the first half of 2020 were rejected, mostly on bureaucratic grounds.16 However, while there has been some disruptions during intensified lockdowns, the access of tens of thousands of West Bank Palestinians to their workplaces in Israel, has largely continued.
Palestinian access to and within the central part of H2, physically segregated from the rest of Hebron city by multiple checkpoints and barriers, is still permitted only to those registered as residents of that area.17 The access challenges faced by these residents have been further compounded since May 2020, as they cannot rely any longer on the PA to intervene on their behalf with the Israeli authorities.
Across the West Bank, however, a comprehensive survey conducted in January-February 2020, showed a 16 per cent decrease in the overall number of fixed permanent obstacles (checkpoints, earthmounds, roadblocks, etc.), compared with the last survey in July 2018: from 705 to 593 obstacles.18 Many of the above restrictions are aimed at protecting and providing space for the expansion of Israeli settlements and their gradual annexation to Israel, some de jure (as in East Jerusalem) and others de facto (as in Area C), in contravention to international law. There are, at present, over 630,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, in some 250 settlements and settlement outposts, which directly control approximately 10 per cent of West Bank land.19 Despite a slowdown in the number of building permits issued, and housing unit starts during the first half of 2020 compared to same period in 2019, 20 settlement expansion continued. Of particular concern this year, is the advancement of the E1 settlement project, entailing the construction of 3,500 housing units in a strategic part of Area C, to the east of East Jerusalem.21 If actually implemented, this project will intensify the coercive environment on 18 Palestinian Bedouin communities located in the area, in addition to further separating East Jerusalem from the remainder of the West Bank.
Finally, Palestinians living in the 19 refugee camps across the West Bank, have been seriously affected by the pandemic and related measures, as well as by significant shortfalls in donor support to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees. Overcrowded living conditions have exacerbated tensions and hardship at the household level during lockdowns and school closures and increased the difficulties in isolating family members who contract the virus. Increasing unemployment, the salary crisis in the governmental sector, and the weakening of social safety nets as a result of the growing deficit in both the PA and UNRWA, further undermine the situation of vulnerable refugee households.