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Coronavirus drives opening of Turkish hospital in Gaza

The Palestine-Turkish Friendship Hospital has finally opened in the Gaza Strip to help fight the coronavirus outbreak, which authorities fear will quickly become a humanitarian disaster.

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Gearing up to battle the coronavirus outbreak that's beginning to take hold in the Palestinian territories, the Islamic University of Gaza has opened a hospital that had stood unused since it was completed three years ago.

The 180-bed Palestine-Turkey Friendship Hospital began operating this week after Turkey's parliament approved March 25 an operating budget for the facility. The hospital's construction was completed on the school's Gaza City campus in 2017 with funding from the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), but due to political differences between the West Bank and Gaza, the hospital never operated until now.

The private university is close to Hamas, but Turkey and Ramallah had signed a protocol in 2017 that said, “Turkish support to the Palestinians will be implemented only through official Palestinian institutions, and through Turkish institutions operating in Palestine in cooperation with official institutions.”

"Official" means the Palestinian Authority (PA) in Ramallah — not Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

A source at the Ministry of Health in Gaza told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the ministry prefers not to speak to the media about this issue due to its sensitivity. Asked why the hospital had not operated before, he said Turkey officially handed over the hospital in accordance with an agreement signed between it and the PA years ago, but the PA used the hospital as a tool of political blackmail.

Saeed al-Namrouti, the university's public relations director, preferred not to talk about the political differences that had prevented the hospital from operating, and stressed that the university is not a party to such differences.

“In terms of budget and operations, the hospital is completely subject to the Turkish government, represented by TIKA, as it is the one that determines with whom to sign the employment agreement,” he said. “Opening it at this stage is an achievement for the university and the Palestinian people. I hope that it will remain operational even after the end of the state of emergency.”

Under the agreement, he said, the Gaza Health Ministry will operate the hospital in coordination with the Palestinian Ministry of Health during the emergency. According to Namrouti, there is no dispute between the health ministries in Ramallah and Gaza over this agreement, as everyone wants to help the Palestinian people avoid the risks and potential consequences of the outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Ibrahim al-Madhoun, a Turkey-based political analyst close to Hamas, told Al-Monitor the PA’s attitude is what delayed the hospital's operation in the first place. And now, the hospital's operation by the Ministry of Health in the Gaza Strip will undoubtedly annoy the PA, but the need to unite to fight the coronavirus might help mediate the problem.

“There is no doubt that the coronavirus crisis helped facilitate and expedite the opening of this hospital,” he added.

On March 31, the Hamas-run Ministry of Health announced that two more cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed, bringing the total of people infected in the besieged Gaza Strip to 12. In the Palestinian territories, at least 205 cases had been recorded as of April 4.

With almost 2 million residents, the 140-square-mile Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated areas in the world and its people suffer under dire living conditions and rampant poverty, leaving them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor, “Hamas has reached out to a number of parties led by Egypt, Qatar, Turkey and the United Nations to help confront the coronavirus pandemic.”

He said Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been in direct contact to discuss ways to support Gazans during the crisis. He pointed out that during the last contact between the two on March 20, Erdogan promised Haniyeh that Turkey would help operate the hospital.

Of note, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced Dec. 9 that the Palestine-Turkey Friendship Hospital would open in response to the establishment of a US field hospital in the Gaza Strip. Hamas agreed to that hospital as part of truce understandings with Israel concluded through Egyptian and international mediation, and the plan angered PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

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