Israel-Palestine: conflict or cooperation in the coronavirus time?
Israel and the Palestinian Authority have created a joint operations room to combat the new coronavirus epidemic. “Our common borders and our relationships don’t allow hesitation in taking serious measures and collaborating at the highest levels to prevent the spread of the virus”, Palestinian Authority (AP) spokesman Ibrahim Milhem announced a few days ago. The Israel COVID-19 bulletin records 4,247 Israelis so far tested positive for coronavirus, 132 hospitalizations, and 79 recoveries, while 15 patients died and 74 are actually in intensive care. To curb the spread of the virus, the Israeli government has tightened emergency measures: restrictions on circulation and a ban on leaving homes, except for vital needs. All shops except food, pharmacies, shops selling animal and optical food closed, and drastic reduction in public transport. Disobeying the ordinance means committing a crime punished with heavy fines. Going to work is allowed only for few activities. Synagogues, churches and mosques were closed as religious and cultural events are allowed only in “open space”.
Hundreds of infection cases, 17 healings and one death were recorded in the West Bank. In Gaza, nine COVID-19 cases were confirmed, two returning from Pakistan, the other seven are local transmission. The Palestinian Authority declared a state of emergency in all territories on March 5, after the first cases of contagion recorded in the Bethlehem area, and on March 22 imposed a 14-day curfew in the entire West Bank. In this context, the alarm is growing among the Palestinian population, in particular in Gaza, where hospitals are seriously lacking in protective equipment and resources. The Gaza Ministry of Health has launched an urgent appeal to the World Health Organization (WHO) warning of catastrophic consequences if the virus spreads to the coastal enclave. “We ask the United Nations and the international community to give us immediate support, including fans and intensive care equipment to deal with the epidemic”, the Ministry of Health spokesman, Dr. Ashraf al-Qudra, in a press conference said last Tuesday. The ministry said around 150 fans are immediately needed to assist the two million people living in Gaza. According to a senior ministry official, there are currently only 65 cars and they are already in high demand. Most of the equipment used in hospitals is in poor condition, he warned, and there will be no way to treat those who are sick if the virus spreads.
The Palestinian Authority seeks to reassure its citizens by reaffirming the need to cooperate in the medical field with the Israeli government to combat the virus, putting aside the differences. “Anyone who opposes cooperation with Israel in the medical field will act against the interests of our people”, an official in Ramallah stated. “This is the time to put our differences aside and work together against the pandemic, which does not distinguish between Jews and an Arabs”. Major Yotam Shefer, head of the International Department of Activities Coordination of the Israeli Government in the Territories (COGAT), said that in the past three weeks the department, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health, has been working to help Palestinians with the coronavirus outbreak. Regarding the closure decreed in the West Bank and the Gaza with the exception of humanitarian cases, such as medical treatment in Israeli hospitals and the entry of Palestinian medical personnel, Shefer recalled that “Palestinian workers employed in agriculture, in the construction, industry and services may enter Israel. Due to the spread of the virus, all workers entering Israel are subject to housing in Israel for a period of one to two months, which is under the responsibility of Israeli employers”.
By the way workers who have chosen to return to their homes in the West Bank are not able to return to Israel. “Our coordination with the PA is very close and very strong. We are working together because we understand that in the end this virus has no borders and makes no distinction between Israelis, Palestinians and others. We intend to continue this collaboration and coordination”. Shafer said according to local media. This line of action has received the plause from Nickolay Mladenov, United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, welcoming the coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities in response to COVID-19 pandemic described as excellent. According to the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, the situation on the field, however, records some tensions, especially in the northern Jordan Valley, where officials of the Israeli civil administration intervened by blocking the setting up eight tents to house a field clinic, four emergency housing for residents evacuated from homes and two mosques and seizing all the material used.
While all countries now are facing shortages of supplies, staff, and beds hospitals to treat those infected with the virus, the challenges facing the Palestinian people are exacerbated by more than half a century of Israeli military occupation and its hampering of economic development. To stop a Coronavirus Catastrophe Among Palestinians, Israeli authorities should start by releasing tax revenue belonging to the PA that they have been withholding. This would allow the PA to make needed procurements, without which the situation will spiral out of control, with implications for the entire region.