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Coronavirus: Fearing 'humanitarian disaster' US Senators call for renewed US aid to Palestine

Lawmakers demand answers on status of humanitarian aid, giving Trump administration a one-week deadline to respond
A Palestinian health worker wearing a protective face mask and goggles is pictured at an UNRWA facility in Gaza City on 18 March (AFP/File photo)

Eight US Senators have given the federal government until Friday to respond to concerns over the continued withholding of humanitarian aid to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, as both regions struggle to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Senators expressed deep concern over the spread of the coronavirus in the occupied territories, which lack the ability to deal with a major health crisis. 

Since US President Donald Trump's administration froze nearly all US aid to the West Bank and Gaza in 2018, including funding for the UN's agency for Palestinian refugees known as UNRWA, the Senators said they worry the territories will be unable to handle a serious outbreak. 

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"President Trump recently offered assistance to other countries fighting the coronavirus… including North Korea and Iran. This principle of providing humanitarian aid to those in need should also apply to the Palestinian people," the lawmakers wrote.

The letter was originally drafted by Senators Chris Van Hollen and Elizabeth Warren and signed by Senators Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, Tom Udall, Jeff Merkley, Tom Carper and Sherrod Brown. 

"We write to urge the [Trump] administration to take every reasonable step to provide medicine, medical equipment, and other necessary assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip ... to prevent a humanitarian disaster," the letter reads.

As of 30 March, there were 106 confirmed cases in the occupied West Bank and 9 cases confirmed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Interior based in Ramallah.

A major outbreak of the coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, in either the West Bank or the Gaza Strip would have dire consequences given the poor health facilities and infrastructures in both areas. 

'Failing to combat this public health emergency'

Gaza, which has suffered from a blockade imposed by both Egypt and Israel since 2007, would be particularly affected.

Often cited as one of the most densely populated areas on earth, 38 percent of the population lives in poverty and 54 percent are "food insecure", according to the UN. More than 90 percent of the water available to Gazans is "undrinkable".

"Altogether, these conditions, if compounded by a Covid-19 outbreak in the region, would further endanger the health of Palestinians in the coastal enclave," the Senators wrote.

Both the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip have taken extraordinary measures to curb the spread, barring public gatherings and asking residents to stay home. In Gaza, anyone entering the Strip goes directly into a 14 day quarantine at facilities set up by the government. 

On Sunday, Senator Sanders, who is also a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, reiterated the need for US aid in Gaza, adding that Israel must also help in getting humanitarian assistance into the Strip.

"My Senate colleagues and I call on Trump to send US medical relief. And the Israeli government must also lift its restrictions on humanitarian aid," Sanders said in a tweet. 

Earlier this year, Congress passed the 2020 Appropriations Act, which included $75 million for humanitarian and development assistance for the Palestinian people, but that money has yet to be allocated by the Trump administration. 

"Given the spread of the coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza, the extreme vulnerability of the health system in Gaza, and the continued withholding of US aid to the Palestinian people, we are concerned that the [Trump] administration is failing to take every reasonable step to help combat this public health emergency in the Palestinian Territories," the Senators wrote in the letter to Pompeo. 

UNRWA: 'We have no money coming in'

While in recent years several other countries have stepped in with extra funds since US aid was cut, UNRWA has warned that the agency would run out of money by April if further assistance was not made available. 

"I am very, very much concerned about budget and the financial situation,” Gwyn Louis, West Bank Director of UNRWA Affairs, told the official Palestinian news agency WAFA on Saturday. 

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"We have something [like] until the end of April to continue with our services, but then we have no additional funding [for] the coronavirus response and to meet the needs of the community," Louis said. 

UNRWA runs medical clinics, schools and provides social assistance to some 5 million Palestinian refugees in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza, as well as in Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. 

With the coronavirus outbreak, all UNRWA schools have been closed and most healthcare activities have been focused on dealing with the effects of the pandemic.

"We have no money coming in and therefore it is a challenge," explained Louis. "Whatever funding we get is immediately going into the community. We are now using funding that we have for other programs, which potentially could impact some of our activity in April."

"Donors are looking into needs and some donors want to support the Palestinian Authority, which is the right thing to do since we also work together. We are hoping we will get some support in the coming days."