March 27, 2020

Van Hollen, Warren Lead Senators in Urging the State Department to Provide Humanitarian Assistance to the Palestinian People to Fight Coronavirus

Existing conditions in the West Bank and Gaza, compounded by a COVID-19 outbreak, would further endanger the health of Palestinians

United States Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led a letter to Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo urging him to take every reasonable step to lawfully provide medicine, medical equipment, and other necessary humanitarian assistance to the West Bank and Gaza Strip (Palestinian Territories) to fight the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) global pandemic. The senators noted that President Trump has offered assistance to other countries fighting the coronavirus, such as North Korea and Iran. Joining the letter are Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Tom Carper (D-Del.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

As of March 24, there are at least 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the West Bank, and the first two cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Gaza. A quarantine facility has been established on the Gaza side of Egypt's Rafah crossing. However, Gaza, with a population of approximately 1.8 million people and one of the most densely populated areas of the world, remains a humanitarian catastrophe, has a weak public health system, and has been subject to a blockade and border restrictions since 2007. Additionally, since January 2018, the Trump Administration froze nearly all U.S. aid to the Palestinian people.

The Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 Appropriations Act included $75 million for humanitarian and development assistance for the Palestinian people. Despite that appropriation, and in the face of a COVID-19 outbreak in the West Bank and the beginnings of one in Gaza, it appears the Trump Administration has not reconsidered its policy of ceasing all bilateral assistance to the Palestinians and all contributions to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), which supports the basic health care needs of millions of Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, and surrounding countries. 

"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 U.S. aid to the Palestinian people, we are concerned that the Administration is failing to take every reasonable step to help combat this public health emergency in the Palestinian Territories," the lawmakers wrote.

The lawmakers have requested a response to their letter no later than April 3, 2020, asking what steps the Administration is taking or planning to help provide the Palestinian people with access to adequate medicine, medical equipment, personnel, and other resources to combat the coronavirus; whether the Trump Administration will obligate $75 million in Congressionally-appropriated aid to the Palestinians, some of which could help them address public health needs; whether the State Department is coordinating with UN relief agencies, foreign governments, NGOs, or other entities to facilitate the delivery of critically needed medical aid to the Palestinian people to combat the coronavirus; how many medical facilities in the West Bank and Gaza are capable of treating and, if medically necessary, quarantining infected patients and medical personnel; and whether the Administration has consulted with the Israeli government regarding the need to ease existing restrictions on the import into Gaza of medicines and critical health related materials and equipment.

The full text of the letter is available here.