Israel-Palestine: Publication

COVID-19 in Gaza: Legal obligations of authorities

21 December 2020

This legal brief clarifies the obligations, under international law, of the different authorities that have an influence on the COVID-19 response in Gaza.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to unparalleled challenges across the globe. In the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt), these challenges are compounded by the pre-existing situation of prolonged occupation. In Gaza, the pandemic also takes place in the context of a 13-year-old blockade imposed by Israel, which has led to a chronic lack of access to essential goods, to the erosion of essential services including health care, water and sanitation, as well as to widespread impoverishment. This land, sea and air blockade exacerbates the vulnerability of Gazans to COVID-19: not only does it undermine the capacity of local authorities to fight against the virus, it also hampers patients’ access to adequate health care and dramatically exacerbates the social, economic and other effects of the crisis on the population.

This legal brief clarifies the international obligations of the responsible authorities in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic in Gaza, with a particular focus on the obligations of Israel, as the occupying power, and Hamas as the de facto local authority in Gaza. The analysis mostly focuses on health-related obligations, with a shorter treatment of rules pertaining to the protection of livelihoods and education. The brief underlines the importance of not only complying with obligations related to the immediate public health, economic and social crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic but also of ending pre-existing violations.

The scope of the obligations of the responsible authorities under IHL and IHRL is a function of the control they exercise over different aspects of civil life in Gaza. The following is a non-exhaustive summary of some important obligations of the main actors that have an influence over the effectiveness of the COVID-19 response in Gaza:

Israel must notably

  • lift the blockade on Gaza;
  • refrain from arbitrarily blocking or interfering with, and instead immediately facilitate, the passage of all items necessary to fight the COVID-19 pandemic,  including items necessary to treat and contain the spread of the virus, to ensure the proper functioning of the local health care system, and to maintain and develop WASH systems in Gaza;
  • refrain from arbitrarily blocking or interfering with, and instead facilitate, the supply of fuel, electricity and internet into the Gaza Strip, as these are necessary for the proper functioning of essential services such as health and WASH services, as well as for continued access to education during the pandemic;
  • lift unwarranted, excessive or otherwise arbitrary restrictions on the movement of patients requiring medical referrals outside of Gaza, and of health care personnel in and out of Gaza;
  • lift additional unwarranted, excessive or otherwise arbitrary restrictions of access imposed in the ARA;
  • take all other necessary measures in its power to treat and control the COVID-19 and more generally to ensure and maintain health care in Gaza;
  • refrain from hindering efforts by others, including States and humanitarian actors, to support and develop Gaza’s health care system.

The Palestinian Authority must notably

  • distribute to the Gaza Strip available medical goods, including medicines, necessary to treat and control the virus;
  • create the conditions to ensure that everyone in the Palestinian territory, including Gaza, has equal access to health care.

Hamas must notably

  • take all the steps necessary for the treatment and control of the COVID-19 pandemic in Gaza, to the fullest extent that the resources at its disposal allow;
  • when adopting restrictions, such as movement restrictions, such restrictions must be compliant with IHRL standards;
  • take the necessary steps to ensure the continuity of essential health services during the pandemic, including mental health care;
  • take the necessary steps to protect those in vulnerable positions from violence including domestic violence;
  • take the necessary steps to comply with its core obligations related to livelihoods and education in Gaza, with particular attention to the situation of individuals and groups in vulnerable positions.

Third States must notably

  • facilitate access to essential health goods and services for Gazans to the maximum of their capacities, including preventive medicines aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19, such as vaccines;
  • refrain from rendering aid or assistance to Israel in the commission of violations of international law including the maintenance of unlawful access and movement restrictions;
  • use their influence over Israel, if any, to prevent further human rights violations and to ensure respect for IHL.