The Palestinians and the Coronavirus: Between Cooperation and Escalation

Michael Milshtein points out surprising levels of coordination and across the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, identifying an often overlooked capacity for cooperation that exists despite the persistent atmosphere of tension and conflict. This article is part of "The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis".

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The coronavirus challenge appeared in the Pales­tinian arena during a particularly sensitive time. In the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is facing a severe and ongoing political crisis, accom­panied by a mutual economic boycott between it and Israel and a deep breakdown in its relations with the U.S government. In the Gaza Strip, civil­ian distress, has exacerbated the security situa­tion, making it difficult to establish a long-term strategic truce between Hamas and Israel. On the eve of the Corona crisis’ outbreak, both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were apprehensive that the existing social order could collapse and lead to a new round of violent confrontation with Is­rael.

Both Palestinian governments’ dealings with the Corona crisis, thus far, has been perceived by them as a success, mainly because the number of confirmed patients in the Palestinian arena is among the lowest in the Arab world (some 400 patients in the West Bank, two of whom have died so far; 20 in the Gaza Strip, most of whom have recovered). In fact, this success is not only a re­sult of Palestinian conduct but also of the support Israel provides. This demonstrates the close ex­istential link between the Palestinians and Israel on all levels, as well as the importance of the civ­il-economic component in maintaining strategic stability in the Palestinian arena.

The PA stands out in its successful fight against the Corona challenge. Ramallah has swiftly and effectively isolated and treated patients, closed public spaces (including mosques), and promoted public information (among other things through the use of social networks, state media, and the religious establishment). It is not surprising, therefore, that in last month’s public opinion polls in the West Bank, the Palestinian public gave Ra­mallah a high score on its dealing with the crisis.

However, this success would not have been achieved without the extensive cooperation of the PA with Israel on all levels, led by the medical and economic sectors, a phenomenon that has gained wide public support in the West Bank. In this framework, Palestinians are provided with medical equipment, receive training, and main­tain close security and civilian coordination. Israel also provides important aid to the PA’s econo­my, which was severely damaged by the Corona crisis (similar to Israel’s). The economic damage raised concerns that it would undermine the Pal­estinian public’s fabric of life (along with fears of rising unemployment and poverty rates, as well as incidents of domestic violence and crime). In light of the importance of the economic compo­nent in maintaining strategic stability in the West Bank, Israel has provided emergency financial assistance to the PA and moderated its two-year policy of withholding Palestinian tax revenue that has been used by the PA to pay the families of ter­rorists.

The cooperation between Israel and the Palestin­ian Authority has also been accompanied by ten­sion, most notably as a result of statements from senior Palestinian officials (including Prime Minis­ter Mohammad Shtayyeh) that Israel was deliber­ately spreading the coronavirus among the Pales­tinian population through its soldiers or through the insertion of infected Palestinian workers into the West Bank without testing or isolating them. Israel has viewed these claims as incitement and has threatened to end its cooperation with the PA if it continues, fearing that it could lead to terror­ist attacks.

The situation in the Gaza Strip is ostensibly better than in the PA, but Hamas and the public are ex­tremely anxious. There is serious concern that the actual number of people infected with the virus is higher than what is officially reported and known (the number of tests in Gaza is very low), and that if, or rather when, a widespread outbreak will occur, the Hamas government will not be able to manage the crisis. Hamas, for its part, has demon­strated a determined approach to the challenge thus far: 27 isolation facilities were quickly set up across Gaza, which housed some 2,500 residents; social distancing in the public domain (including mosques) has been strictly enforced; the prices of basic products in the Gaza Strip has been closely monitored; and the seize-fire with Israel has been carefully maintained (suggesting that the “quiet” depends on Hamas’s will and not its ability).

In early April, Hamas pursued a political initiative in order to ensure the rapid delivery of civilian aid from Israel that will help it deal with the Corona threat. Hamas raised the possibility of providing information to Israel about the two Israeli civil­ians who are in its custody (as well as returning the bodies of two IDF soldiers who were killed in the Gaza Strip during Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014) in exchange for releas­ing sick and old Palestinian prisoners who are in danger of being infected by the coronavirus, and receiving widespread medical assistance from Israel. Hamas’s unusual call to advance a “deal” reflects the depth of its distress, but it also con­stitutes a “window of opportunity” for advancing negotiations on an issue that has been in deep stagnation for several years. However, as both Israel and Hamas slowly emerge from the coro­navirus crisis, the discourse about a prospective “prisoners deal” is gradually dying.

Another prominent Corona-related arena is East Jerusalem. In this area, there is friction between Israel and the Palestinians, with each party claim­ing that, under the pretext of the Corona crisis, the other side is trying to increase its control over the city and undermine the other’s presence there. According to the Palestinians, the Israeli effort is focused on changing the status quo on the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif, while Isra­el claims the PA is expanding its civilian activity in the city (in response to the growing effort of the PA to strength its influence in East Jerusalem, Israel has also arrested a number of Palestinian officials from the city). There is a growing tension among the residents of East Jerusalem, who do not receive the same assistance being offered to residents in West Jerusalem, despite an increase in the number of confirmed patients (about 150 so far, 2 of the, died) in East Jerusalem. Howev­er, exceptional cooperation is taking place in the neighborhoods located beyond the security bar­rier (where approximately 120,000 Palestinians reside out of 350,000 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem). In view of a wave of crime and vio­lence in those neighborhoods during the Corona crisis, Israel has taken the unusual step of allow­ing Palestinian security forces to deploy there for a month (during April), in order to enforce public order.

The relative stability in the Palestinian arena is very fragile and depends on two key factors. The first is maintaining the relatively low rate of infec­tion in both regions (especially in the Gaza Strip), while containing the geographical spread of the virus. The second is preserving a basic standard of living for the Palestinian populations (with an emphasis on food, water, and medical services). Undermining either component could affect the stability of both Palestinian governments and further strengthen the likelihood of an escalation with Israel.

At least for now, the Corona crisis in the Pales­tinian arena presents more challenges than op­portunities. However, if stability is established over time, the crisis may be present more con­crete opportunities. The first of these, mentioned above, is the prisoners and missing persons deal. Its potential depends on timing. If it occurs when Hamas maintains full control over the spread of the virus, Hamas’s motivation to make a deal may decline; but if there is a spike in infections, then it might lead to a deterioration in Hamas’s posi­tion in Gaza. This, in turn, would allow Israel to advance the idea of strategic truce in the Gaza Strip, which would be accompanied by support for Hamas re-asserting its authority over other factions in Gaza.

In the West Bank, the Corona crisis had served as a basis for close cooperation between the two sides for three months. But this cooperation is gradual­ly giving way to intense Palestinian preoccupation with the politics of annexation and Mahmoud Ab­bas’ recent declaration that the PA would end its the civil and military coordination with Israel (the PA is worried that the Israeli unity government will soon formally annex parts of the West Bank). The Annexation process and the PA’s reaction to it could result in escalation and confrontation be­tween the parties that will make the coronavirus cooperation seem like a distant memory. Howev­er, delaying or limiting annexation may help reha­bilitate the relationship between the two parties and allow for cooperation on additional challeng­es that may develop in the Corona context (a sec­ond wave), in the near future.

This article is part of The Coronavirus in the Middle East: State and Society in a Time of Crisis.

For a full version of this article that includes source citations, please see the original publication file, here.