As the coronavirus disease, or COVID-19, began to spread around the world, country after country went into lockdown and began a race to ensure that health systems were prepared to handle the crisis. There was special worry about the besieged Gaza Strip, a small and overcrowded territory already teeming with refugees. Gaza has been suffering from massive economic problems and a debilitated health sector due to the Israeli blockade since 2007. Such conditions make the strip ripe for a rapid spread of the virus while the weakened health system means a dramatic inability to respond—a nightmare scenario.
Ironically, the absence of free movement into and out of Gaza, caused by the Israeli siege, meant that the Gaza Strip was spared from COVID-19 cases for some time after both Israel and the occupied West Bank were struggling to respond to the virus. It also meant that the authorities in Gaza could impose stricter and more efficient measures in screening the small number of entrants via the two entry points to the area.
But then it finally happened. The first COVID-19 cases were detected in Gaza on March 21 and the possibility of the nightmare scenario coming to pass increased significantly. Shortly thereafter Gaza-based epidemiologist Dr. Yehia Abed spoke on how the health system in Gaza was responding. He discussed the efforts to quarantine the people who tested positive as well as the lack of resources Gaza had at its disposal to address this crisis, from tests to ICU capacity.
The United Nations had declared in 2012 that conditions in the Gaza Strip would worsen to the point that the territory would be unlivable by 2020. Now, with a global pandemic starting to spread inside the territory, Gaza will need help from the outside world in order to have a chance at responding to this crisis.
With a global pandemic starting to spread inside the territory, Gaza will need help from the outside world in order to have a chance at responding to this crisis.
As these developments unfolded, Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett commented on assistance to Gaza and linked it to progress on the release of Israeli captives held there. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli military division responsible for administering the occupied territories and their population, falls under Bennett’s purview. Although under international law Israel is clearly responsible for the health of the population of Gaza, it started to seem that Bennett was now linking medical aid for Gaza to political objectives that serve his country’s interests.
Who Are the Captives?
There are four Israelis who are held captive in Gaza and their precise condition is unknown. However, it is believed that two are dead and two others are alive. The two who are thought to have died are Israeli soldiers who were operating in the territory during the Israeli war on Gaza in summer 2014. Both were reportedly killed in action, in unclear circumstances; the Israeli military has been unable to recover them. They or their remains are in the hands of the Hamas military wing.
The two Israelis who are thought to be alive and held captive in Gaza are Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed. They are purportedly mentally unwell and had wandered into the Gaza Strip, where they were eventually arrested and taken by the Hamas military wing, which refers to them as Israeli soldiers. Israel and international human rights organizations dispute this, however. Very little is known about the condition of Mengistu and al-Sayed and even less about the two soldiers thought to be killed in 2014.
Israel’s Obligations to Gaza
Under international law, Israel’s obligations to Gaza are very clear. Israel remains effectively in control of the strip through its blockade and thus retains the responsibilities of an occupier regarding the well-being of the population in Gaza. The Fourth Geneva Convention’s Article 56 specifically relates to the responsibility of the occupier when it comes to the spread of disease:
To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities, the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.
The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories released a statement on March 19 emphasizing this point, as did several human rights organizations. It is important to note that this has been the case since 1967 yet Israel has long failed to uphold its obligations as an occupier in Gaza and elsewhere in occupied territory. The conditions in Gaza have been particularly worsened by the Israeli blockade, which has crippled the economy, as well as by the impact of several massive bombardments that have killed thousands of Palestinians and decimated civilian infrastructure. The Israeli vise-grip on Gaza has meant that all sectors of society have been weakened, including the health sector, which was already below capacity and overwhelmed.
The Politics of Previous Prisoner Exchanges
In the past, Israel engaged in various prisoner exchanges with state and non-state adversaries with which it had been in armed conflict. Israel’s small population meant that soldiers killed or missing behind enemy lines were quick to become national stories. While the country’s prisoner exchanges with sovereign states have been more straightforward and less controversial among Israelis, the same cannot be said of exchanges with non-state groups. The 2008 exchange with Hezbollah—which included the release of Samir Kuntar, convicted of terrorism and murder in Israel and received a hero’s welcome in Lebanon after the exchange—was very controversial in Israel. This came not long after Israel’s war with Hezbollah in 2006, which was long and drawn out as far as Israeli standards go; it was also especially bitter since it resulted in significant losses but few gains.
While [Israel’s] prisoner exchanges with sovereign states have been more straightforward and less controversial among Israelis, the same cannot be said of exchanges with non-state groups.
No prisoner swap was as important for understanding this moment—one that fundamentally shaped the politics of prisoner exchanges in Israel—as much as the deal to free the Israeli soldier held captive from 2006 to 2011, Gilad Shalit. Shalit was captured in the summer of 2006 by a group of Palestinian militants in an operation against a position just outside the Gaza Strip where he was serving as an Israeli soldier. He was brought back into Gaza where he was held, alive, for years. His capture became something of a national saga in Israel as periodic information and videos about his condition would emerge. Israel and Hamas worked through third parties to negotiate an exchange involving Shalit and just over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
The exchange was greatly politicized. On the Israeli side there was objection to going to such great lengths for the release of one captive, especially when it meant that so many Palestinian prisoners would be set free—the argument was that they could attack Israel again. Additionally, some Israelis, as well as some Palestinians, saw it as a major boost to Hamas, which they opposed. For its part, Hamas understood this and sought to capitalize on its favorable position. The list of prisoners to which it agreed included a significant number of Fatah-affiliated prisoners; this projected an effort that transcended factional politics and framed it as a national victory.
Freedom for many of these prisoners was short-lived, however, as Israel began rounding up many of them in summer 2014 in massive arrest sweeps following the killing of three Israeli civilians in the West Bank. These mass arrests led to an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza and, ultimately, the 55-day Israeli war on Gaza that summer.
The impact of that moment on Israeli and Palestinian politics was important for understanding the current situation. From the Israeli perspective, hardliners objected to any deals with Palestinians that would return live prisoners, arguing that this would further incentivize the capture of Israelis, be construed as a propaganda win for the Palestinians, and could return Palestinian prisoners to militancy against Israel. From the Palestinian side, the re-arrest of many of the released prisoners from the Shalit deal showed that the Israelis could not be trusted to keep their word and that even if Palestinian prisoners were released at a ratio of 1000 to 1, it meant much less if Israel would swiftly round them up again.
No Israeli official has made more use of this hardline position than Naftali Bennett, who holds the position of defense minister until a new government is formed.
Politically, no Israeli official has made more use of this hardline position than Naftali Bennett, who holds the position of defense minister until a new government is formed. He, along with Avigdor Lieberman (a former minister of defense), have been critical of Netanyahu’s decisions relating to Gaza and negotiations with Hamas. Bennett has consistently tried to stay to Netanyahu’s right, which is no easy task, and has found in the prisoner exchange issue a convenient way to continue in that role. In recent years, Bennett has opposed all forms of prisoner exchange with Palestinians and has called for kidnapping Palestinians and holding them as ransom to return Israeli captives. He has also opposed even the release of dead Palestinians held by Israel.
For these reasons, Bennett’s comments about linking COVID-19 assistance to progress on the return of Israeli captives fits into his broader political history and probably should be read in that light. Israel has compelling reasons to be concerned about an outbreak in Gaza, one that would not be limited to the strip itself, if it were to occur. In such a scenario, Israel would come under increasing pressure to provide aid and access to treatment; the failure to do so would add reputational costs for the Israeli government. Bennett, however, sees a political game here and, given the current situation in Israel where a government is on the verge of formation after a year and a half of elections, Bennett’s party might be on the outside looking in.
In sum, Bennett’s comments on linking any COVID-19 aid to Gaza to the release of Israeli captives should be viewed through a political lens, first and foremost. Bennett’s time in the Israeli government is almost up, at least for now. Under the new coalition agreement coming to fruition, he will be replaced as defense minister by former chief of staff Benjamin Gantz and it is not clear if Bennett’s party will rejoin the government. He might be angling to push the coalition rightward, from the outside; maintaining a hard line on Gaza would fit right into that objective.
It is hard to see how any progress on a prisoner exchange would be made in this moment as the Israeli government is still not fully formed—and it will be an entirely different security cabinet that would have to approve such a deal. Furthermore, the new government’s agenda will include the coronavirus response and territorial annexation as top priorities. As far as Israel’s facilitation of COVID-19-related aid to Gaza, it is most likely to emulate the pattern all assistance to Gaza has followed: barely existent and far below the needs of the population for which the Israeli occupying power is responsible.