This is a rolling blog post and will be updated as NGO issue more statements on COVID-19.
The news cycle has been dominated by COVID-19, and a number of advocacy NGOs have made statements linking their agendas to this issue. In the Israeli context, this is consistent with previous attempts by NGOs to capitalize on prevailing public discourse, for instance manipulating narratives of climate change and LGBTQ rights as part of their anti-Israel campaigns.
The most notorious example today is a tweet from Sarah Leah Whitson, currently at the Quincy Institute and previously head of the MENA division at Human Rights Watch. Whitson used the classic antisemitic blood libel in responding to a cynical tweet about “6 million jewish israelis” understanding life under “occupation” due to the virus, stating “such a tiny taste. Missing a tablespoon on blood.” (March 14, 2020).
NGO statements relating to Israel and COVID-19 deal with a few common themes:
- “Occupation”: COVID-19 has been appended onto the standard anti-occupation rhetoric and existing campaigns that, for some NGOs and activists, are presented as the most pressing and real global concerns. Tellingly, complaints about Israeli policy in the West Bank do not seriously grapple with whether they will effectively curb the spread of disease, but rather presume that Israel must be acting in bad faith because “occupation.”
- Responsibility for Gaza: 15 years after the withdrawal, NGOs continue to blame Israel for a “humanitarian crisis” based on a unique standard of international law applied to Israel alone that denies Hamas and other actors agency for diverting resources to weapons, tunnels, and terror, instead of public infrastructure. In the current context, NGOs have been using COVID-19 as an excuse to criticize legitimate anti-terror policies and to preemptively blame Israel for an outbreak in Gaza.
- Human Rights Watch (HRW): On March 15, 2020, Executive Director Ken Roth tweeted, “The coronavirus will test the wisdom of Israel’s policies for crippling the economy and health systems of Gaza and the West Bank. As the occupying power (for Gaza, too, given Israel’s severe restrictions on movement), Israel is responsible for health care.” (March 15, 2020)
- Omar Shakir retweeted an article in +972 magazine titled “West Bank lockdowns didn’t start with the coronavirus pandemic.” The article argues that Israel’s quarantine regarding anyone who had been in Bethlehem is harmful to Palestinians working in Israel. This ignores the implementation of the same policies for the entire Israeli population, as well as tourists and anyone who had been in the vicinity of infected individuals – causing many to miss work. (March 11)
- In a tweet, Omar Shakir alleged that I “Israel has caged 2 million ppl in 25by7 mile (40by11 KM) enclave & sharply restricted entry of goods for 13 yrs, decimating Gaza’s health sector. Real risk of a calamity. Closure must end.” Shakir ignores Hamas’ corruption, abuse of aid, and decision to devote resources to terror instead of building medical infrastructure. (March 25)
- Amnesty International: A local Amnesty UK group in Mid Gloucestershire published an article using coronavirus as a hook to further Amnesty’s antisemitic campaign that attacks international tourism companies (see NGO Monitor’s report). The article states, “This year many people’s holiday plans will be affected by coronavirus, and travellers will obviously want to get proper advice before they book. However, holidaymakers should also consider whether their vacations could negatively impact the people and places they visit. One example is holidays and activities in Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem…Please support our petition calling on TripAdvisor to ‘check out’ of the settlements – www.amnesty.org.uk/actions/checkout.” (March 14)
- Amnesty UK posted a short video singling out Israel as being solely responsible for Gaza’s wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amnesty denies Hamas and other actors’ agency for diverting resources to weapons, tunnels, and terror, instead of public infrastructure. (March 28).
- Amnesty UK tweeted, “It’s a time of great uncertainty for people around the world. But for Palestinians living in occupied West Bank, measures imposed in the name of containing coronavirus are exacerbated by arbitrary & cruel restrictions that already affect their lives.” Of all the human rights needs, this tweet related to Israel’s “travel ban” on an Amnesty employee who was denied an exit permit from the West Bank for “security reasons.”
- Addameer: The PFLP-linked NGO Addameer posted an article on its website “Israeli Prison Services’ Measures in Regards to Covid-19,” stating, “At the moment, while the world is suffering from the pandemic, covid-19, Palestinian prisoners are still suffering medical negligence.” (March 16).
- Gisha: Gisha retweeted a video by AJ+ with the caption “Palestinians in Gaza are trying to prepare for the novel coronavirus outbreak. But the Israeli blockade is making it much harder.” (March 14)
- Gisha Executive Director Tanya Harry tweeted, “Thankfully no known cases for now, but an outbreak could be devastating. I’m outraged that my govt imposed measures to deliberately bring Gaza to this point. When this ends, a reversal in policy is the only moral response…” (March 12)
- Gisha published an article, “Crossings update: Israel to impose extensive travel restrictions at Erez Crossing over Coronavirus concerns,” belittling Israel’s policy of restricting access to its borders, including Gaza’s, in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. (March 11)
- Samidoun: Samidoun, a group with noted ties to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group, posted an article on its website, “Israeli apartheid, COVID-19 and Palestinian prisoners: Freedom now!” The NGO claims that “Palestinian prisoners are continuing their struggle to confront Israel’s apartheid COVID-19 response that poses a threat to Palestinian prisoners and, indeed, all Palestinians. No Palestinian prisoners have yet been diagnosed with coronavirus, but their conditions of confinement present a serious concern.” (March 17).
- In an article published on its website, Samidoun claims that “This year Palestinians in Gaza are forced into further isolation by the coronavirus pandemic compounded by an unabating Israeli siege which blocks access to and production of medical equipment…While hospitals in NYC are desperately are short on basic life-saving equipment the U.S. continues has to spend $3.8 billion/year on military funding for Israeli colonization of Palestine- further jeopardizing the lives of the people in the US who are in need of those funds, while materially supporting illegal Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestine.” (March 30).
- IfNotNow: IfNotNow tweeted, “Israel’s brutal occupation makes this pandemic especially dangerous for Palestinians: restrictions on Gazans’ movement, a lack of essential supplies (including medicine), and high density confinement increases the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak in Gaza.” (March 13)
- IfNotNow also tweeted, “Demolishing Palestinian homes will worsen the coronavirus spread. It was already inhumane to displace people, now it’s also an urgent matter of public health. The Israeli army must stop demolishing homes and focus on the health and wellness of all Israelis and Palestinians.” A second tweet added that “This is a moment to demand unity because this virus doesn’t recognize nationalities, borders or walls. We cannot afford to let those in power use this moment to further divide us.” (March 11)
- Jewish Voice for Peace: Created a petition to “Tell Congress: End the Gaza blockade” because “COVID-19 is uniquely threatening to Palestinians in Gaza.”
- JVP hosted a “virtual rally” titled “End the Blockade on Gaza” to “#SpreadSolidarityForGaza.” According to JVP, “During the rally, participants made signs and shared out a petition calling on U.S. Congress to tell Israel to end the blockade now. Over 15,000 have people signed the petition. A teach-in was also held to encourage all American participants to call their members of Congress and demand that they take action to end the blockade on Gaza.” Speakers included known anti-Israel and antisemitic activists, including Linda Sarsour, as well as individuals from the delegitimization NGOs Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). (March 30).
- B’Tselem: Published an article on its website, “Abuse of Palestinians overrides fear of COVID-19,” claiming that arrests in Jerusalem “exposes residents to substantial, completely unnecessary health risks, as it encourages gatherings and forces arrested residents, including many minors, to leave home and be around strangers.” (March 19)
- In a tweet promoting its article, B’Tselem blamed whatever potential spread of the coronavirus in Gaza on Israel, ignoring years of misappropriation of humanitarian aid by Hamas for terror. The tweet states, “COVID-19 in Gaza? After more than a decade of Israeli blockade – Israel will not be able to deflect the blame if this nightmare scenario turns into a reality that it created and made no effort to prevent.”
- In a press release, “Israeli-made nightmare scenario: COVID-19 in Gaza,” B’Tselem falsely (on multiple accounts) alleged that “The Gaza Strip is now in the throes of a humanitarian disaster – created entirely by Israel.” (March 23).
- B’Tselem tweeted, “As the whole world battles an unprecedented and paralyzing healthcare crisis – Israel confiscates tents designated for clinic in the Northern West Bank.” In response, Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) unit explained that B’Tselem’s information was false: “We are sorry to see a Human Rights NGO choosing to exploit a global crisis to spread fake news” and that the “structure was a guarding post built illegally and without permits by a resident of Bardala, which is northeast of Nablus.” (March 26).
- Defense for Children International – Palestine (DCI-P): DCI-P issued a statement demanding that Israel “release all Palestinian child detainees in Israeli prisons due to the rapid global spread of the COVID-19 virus.” DCI-P, which regularly calls on Israel to release Palestinian children anyways, presents no evidence of an outbreak in Israeli prisons or unique risk to children therein. There is also no discussion of the risks to public safety should some of these criminals be released. (March 19)
- Palestinian Human Rights Organization Council (PHROC): PHROC sent letters to the International Committee of the Red Cross and to local diplomats demanding “the safety of Palestinian detainees and prisoners” and “their release to ensure their safety from the rapidly spreading pandemic.” (March 23).
- PHR – I: As quoted in an article, “Doctors Warn of Gaza Strip’s Collapse After First Coronavirus Cases Surface” published in Haaretz, PHR-I claimed that the management of the COVID-19 response in Gaza is dependent on Israel and its cooperation with Hamas entities. The PHR-I official falsely stated, “In light of the ongoing siege, Israel is responsible by virtue of international law to provide the required means to the Health Ministry in Gaza.” (March 23).
- UN-OCHA and EAPPI: In a report published by UN-OCHA, “COVID-19 Emergency Situation Report 1 (as of 1200 hrs, 24 March 2020),” OCHA claims that “The withdrawal of international protective presence actors in the West Bank has increased the exposure and vulnerability of some communities to settler violence. A key protective presence NGO (EAPPI) estimates that the suspension of its five teams will affect over 200 communities.” It is unclear how these advocacy volunteers would have aided Palestinians in efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19 or how EAPPI’s “hands on” approach would be appropriate given the current context of the coronavirus.
- American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): AFSC’s Jehad Abusalim published an article in +972 Magazine titled “Israel’s caging of Gaza is a recipe for coronavirus disaster.” The article claims that “The pandemic’s arrival threatens to make Gaza even more unlivable under Israeli siege” (March 22).
- Students for Justice in Palestine: Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Maryland hosted an event “Corona and Countering the Occupation.” The poster advertising the event notes that issues discussed included “How is corona being handled in Palestine?” “How does occupation worsen the situation?” and “What is the best way to counter the occupation.” (March 10)
- In response to Israel’s first coronavirus related death, who was an octogenarian Holocaust survivor, a former leader of New York University’s chapter of SJP retweeted a post about his passing with the caption, “anyway should I paint my nails red or green today” (March 20).
- Africa for Palestine (formerly BDS South Africa): Issued a statement regarding COVID-19, stating, “we condemn the discriminatory way in which Israel has dealt with the Coronavirus by privileging how it treats hebrew speaking Israeli Jews in comparison to the indigenous arab speaking Palestinians” (March 17).
- Holy Land Trust: Holy Land Trust posted a lengthy Facebook post describing Israel as a “killer virus.” The post states:
“Maybe such a raid is a reminder to all of us not to forget that while we are facing the physical dangers of the coronavirus, there is another virus that has existed in this world and has been slowly incubating and spreading itself in the hearts and minds of many. The virus that is at the core of all our epidemics and illnesses, the virus that breeds fear, hatred and mistrust amongst us, the virus that triggers racism, segregation, marginalization of others and the destruction of earth and its resources. It is the virus that might not kill us directly, but takes over our minds and makes us kill each other. It makes me see my religion and my God as better than yours, my race as purer than yours, my gender as superior to yours, and therefore justifies my violence towards you.Humanity must come together now to address both of these killer viruses, the one that is killing humans and the one that is killing our humanity.” (March 21).
- Zochrot: Zochrot published an article “COVID-19 in times of settler colonialism. In Palestine, the Unequal Effects of an Epidemic,” claiming that “Israel [is] a settler colonial society.” The article compares Israel to various historical colonialist enterprises, and without providing any evidence of measures that might put Palestinians at risk draws a parallel to “Europe unwittingly exported smallpox and measles to the ‘New World’ and Africa via the slave trade, later adding malaria and yellow fever…” An example of Zochrot’s contradictory arguments is seen in the claim that “the notion of concern for Palestinian lives and medical cooperation seem absurd in a settler colonial setting… It is telling that the blockade and closing of checkpoints in Bethlehem was not followed by similar measures in Tel Aviv or other Israeli cities after similar numbers of patients were diagnosed.” (March).
- European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR): ECFR’s policy fellow and “Israel/Palestine Project Coordinator” tweeted statistics regarding the number of ventilators per number of inhabitants in Israel, the UK, the West Bank, and Gaza, so as to argue that Israel’s number of ventilators per inhabitants in somehow unjust. NRC’s Itay Epshtain tweeted, “Israel is nearing 4,000 ventilators (and patient montiors, autosuctions, IV drip counters), and qualifed ICU personnel. No such surge capacity in #oPt. The occupying power remains ultimately responsible for the health of the population under it’s effective control.” This tweet denies Hamas’ and the PA’s responsibility for not prioritizing healthcare infrastructure in their budgets. (March 27).