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Coronavirus: Israel links any aid for Gaza to return of two soldiers

Gaza has reported 12 cases of Covid-19, but health experts and humanitarian groups fear virus may devastate impoverished strip
Gaza's health-care system is near collapse after several wars and 13 years of siege (AFP)

Israel has linked any assistance it might offer Palestinians in Gaza with their fight against the coronavirus with the return of two soldiers who went missing during the 2014 war in the enclave.

Gaza's health-care system is near collapse after several wars and 13 years of siege, which have stymied any potential for long-term economic development.

The territory's health ministry has repeatedly warned that it is ill-equipped to combat the spread of the disease owing to acute shortages of medicines, laboratory supplies and other equipment used to carry out coronavirus examinations.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel "also has humanitarian needs", referring to the two soldiers who are believed to be dead.

"I think that we need to enter a broad dialogue about Gaza's and our humanitarian needs. It would not be right to disconnect these things," he said.

It was not immediately clear if Bennett was speaking of a possible condition on Israel providing direct aid, or of enabling the transfer of other aid over its border with Gaza.

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Hamas, which governs the besieged and impoverished enclave, has never said whether the two soldiers are dead or alive, but neither has it provided any signs of life, something it did in a previous similar case.

Hamas said returning the two soldiers - as well as two Israeli civilians who crossed into the territory - would require negotiating a prisoner swap and would not be done in exchange for humanitarian aid.

"Israel bears responsibility for any consequences should the disease spread in Gaza because it has been blockading it for 13 years," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.

"A prisoner swap deal is a separate track," he added.

So far, Gaza has reported only 12 cases of the coronavirus - officially known as Covid-19 - though health experts and humanitarian groups fear that the virus will devastate the impoverished strip that is home to 2 million people.

According to the World Bank, every other person in Gaza is living below the poverty line and the strip has the world's highest unemployment rate at more than 50 percent, with youth unemployment exceeding 70 percent.

Palestinian officials have said that 1,500 coronavirus testing kits will be delivered to Gaza after being donated by the Palestinian administration in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Rights groups on Monday called for an end to the blockade on Gaza, which has taken place at the hands of Israel since 2007, in order to deliver necessary humanitarian and medical aid to help combat the outbreak.