Foreword by the Humanitarian Coordinator
As is the case globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has been the dominant concern in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) in 2020. Due to swift and decisive action on the part of the authorities after the first cases were detected in early March, by the time the initial emergency measures were eased in late May, only 630 Palestinians were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, including just 60 people in the Gaza Strip, with five fatalities reported in total. However, there has been a subsequent upsurge, in particular, since community infection was first confirmed in Gaza in late August. As of 27 November, despite the reintroduction of lockdown measures, infections are escalating. The cumulative number of people confirmed to have had the virus stands at over 93,000, including about 18,500 who are currently with COVID-19, and 776 who have died (As of the time of publication, the number of confirmed cases in the oPt had risen sharply to over 126,000).
The situation in Gaza is especially concerning, due to its population density, degraded infrastructure and deteriorating living conditions. Gaza’s fragile health-care system is ill-equipped to deal with the current surge, having been undermined during the over-decade-long Israeli blockade, the internal Palestinian divide, a chronic power deficit, shortages in specialized staff, drugs and equipment, and the large number of serious injuries from the ‘Great March of Return’ demonstrations. Between May and November 2020, the Palestinian Authority (PA) halted almost all contacts with Israel, in response to Israel’s plan to formally annex parts of the West Bank; as a result, the access of patients, in particular from Gaza, to health care in East Jerusalem and in Israel was further restricted.
While the situation in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, is less severe than in Gaza, settlement activities, settler violence, access restrictions, demolitions and evictions have continued or increased during 2020, intensifying the coercive environment on vulnerable Palestinian communities and undermining hopes for a two-state solution. Throughout the oPt, women and children are bearing the brunt of the combined impact of the pandemic and the economic consequences of COVID-19 restrictions, with protection partners reporting a surge in domestic gender-based violence (GBV) and limited access to support services, due to the pandemic-related movement restrictions.
According to the World Bank, some 121,000 Palestinians lost their jobs in the second quarter of this year, due to COVID-19 related restrictions and the PA’s decision to stop accepting the tax clearance revenues that Israel collects on its behalf. The socio-economic impact is again disproportionally marked in Gaza, with unemployment reaching 48.6 per cent in the third quarter of 2020, while it reached 18.7 per cent in the West Bank.
In October, theWorld Bank projected a contraction of about eight per cent in the Palestinian economy in 2020. On 9 November, in a development that may further exacerbate socioeconomic conditions, UNRWA announced that it had run out of money to pay the November salaries of its 28,000 staff. The Gaza Strip, with 13,000 employees, will be the most adversely affected of the Agency’s five fields of operations in the Middle East.
To respond to the pandemic, by April, most of the regular Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) activities had been reprogrammed by April. The cumulative appeal for 2020 now stands at US$426 million, combining the original $348 million HRP request and $78 million in subsequent COVID-19 appeals. In total, some 1.2 million Palestinians have received humanitarian assistance thus far in 2020, including 300,000 targeted in the original plan.
The severity of the health and economic crisis facing the oPt is reflected in the funding requested, and in the number of people targeted, in the 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP). Humanitarian partners are appealing for $417 million, significantly more than the $350 million sought in 2019, but slightly below the combined request of $426 for 2020. Some 2.4 million people have been identified as in need of humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021, about one in every two Palestinians in the oPt; the full range of these needs is set out in detail in the accompanying Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO). Of these, 1.8 million of the most vulnerable will be targeted, an increase from 1.5 million in 2019. However, this means that over half a million vulnerable people, mainly in the Gaza Strip, will not receive any assistance, even if the HRP is fully funded.
Underfunding of humanitarian operations in the oPt has been a serious constraint in recent years. By end-November, 67 per cent of the funds requested for the 2020 HRP had been secured, while 58 per cent of the amount requested in the COVID-19 Response Plan, had been raised.1 Regular and realistic donor funding is critical to not only alleviate the worst effects of the health and socio-economic consequences of the pandemic, but to act as a stabilizing factor in the current uncertain political and socio-economic climate. Humanitarian funding must be complemented by efforts to tackle increasing attacks that delegitimize humanitarian actors, and by political engagement to address the violations of international law that lie at the heart of the protection crisis in the oPt.
Despite the current surge in COVID-19 cases, there are some grounds for optimism as 2021 approaches. The recently announced resumption of PA-Israel coordination is expected to ease the PA’s financial crisis, facilitate the import of COVIDrelated supplies, and the movement of patients and staff throughout the oPt. The inauguration of a new US administration in January 2021 will hopefully lead to a resumption of funding to UNRWA on the part of what, previously, has been the Agency’s major donor, as well as pushing back on plans for the formal annexation of West Bank territory. Recent announcements concerning the availability of a number of COVID-19 vaccines are welcome.
Despite these developments, the humanitarian situation in the oPt remains fragile. It is critical that the 2021 Humanitarian Response Plan is strongly supported, while a more sustainable solution to the protracted protection crisis in the oPt is achieved, consistent with United Nations resolutions and international law.