Hamas leader says he’d prefer to die in airstrike than from Covid-19, after conflict with Israel overloads Gaza healthcare system

Dying as a martyr in a targeted Israeli strike is a much better fate than succumbing to Covid-19, said Hamas leader Yehya Sinwar, as Gaza health officials warned of a “ticking bomb” with testing and vaccinations virtually halted.

On Wednesday, Sinwar delivered his first speech since the deadly 11-day conflict between Hamas and Israel, in which more than 250 people – mainly Palestinians – lost their lives.

“The greatest gift Israel can give me is to assassinate me,” he said. “I prefer to die a martyr from an F-16 than to die of coronavirus or [another] disease.”

The militant chief’s home was among the IDF targets during the conflict, but Sinwar managed to stay unharmed, allegedly hiding in the underground network of tunnels beneath Gaza.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz promised on Saturday that Israel will eventually succeed in eliminating “all Hamas leaders responsible for firing and launching terror against civilians.” In response, Hamas warned that it would resume hostilities if Sinwar or the group’s chief of staff, Mohammed Deif, were attacked by Israel.

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Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar holds the child of an Al-Qassam Brigades fighter, who was killed in the recent fighting with Israel, during a rally in Gaza City on May 24, 2021.© AFP / Emmanuel DUNAND
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With the conflict halted, at least temporarily, by last week’s ceasefire deal brokered by Egypt, Gaza residents are indeed facing an increased risk of Covid-19. According to a UNICEF report, at least 72,000 Palestinians have been internally displaced by the Israeli strikes, which brought down several multi-story buildings.

The crowded shelters where these people are being holed up now provide a perfect environment for the spread of the infection, as aid workers fear the third wave of the coronavirus is about to hit the enclave.

At least two dozen medical facilities, including Al Rimal clinic where Covid-19 shots were being administered, have been damaged or otherwise affected by Israeli bombing. This has further limited the already mediocre capacity of the health system in Gaza, which has to deal not only with the coronavirus patients, but also with almost 2,000 injured in the strikes.

The true scale of the pandemic in Gaza is impossible to establish at the moment. Covid-19 testing and vaccinations, which were halted during the conflict, haven’t yet regained their pace. A total of around 1,000 Covid deaths were reported in Gaza as of last week, with less than 2% of the enclave’s populations of roughly 2 million people vaccinated. 

“It’s like a ticking bomb because people are not tested, and those who are infected won’t know that they are infected,” said Dr. Majdi Dhair, head of preventive medicine at the Gaza Health Ministry.

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