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Coronavirus ‘extremely dangerous’ for Palestinian areas, UN envoy warns

Mladenov worried about socioeconomic consequences pandemic may have on West Bank and Gaza, says Israel has ‘critical responsibility’ to keep Palestinian economy afloat

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group's armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, spray disinfectant in the streets of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 26, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)
Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group's armed wing, the Al-Quds Brigades, spray disinfectant in the streets of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 26, 2020. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The United Nations’ Middle East peace envoy on Sunday expressed grave concern over the situation in the Palestinian territories, urging Israel to do more to help contain the coronavirus pandemic in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

“The current situation is extremely dangerous and calls for bold action by all stakeholders,” Nickolay Mladenov said in a statement. “I am concerned about the socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 health crisis on the Palestinian people, particularly vulnerable communities in Gaza.”

Besides the medical consequences of the pandemic, “the negative shock to the Israeli and Palestinian economies will have profound implications for public welfare, employment, social cohesion, financial and institutional stability,” he added.

As of Sunday afternoon, 288 coronavirus cases were known to Ramallah authorities, according to Palestinian Authority government spokesperson Ibrahim Milhim.

“If current trends continue, the damage to the Palestinian economy will be substantial,” Mladenov said.

The PA’s economy, which relies to a great extent on tourism and trade, is suffering immensely from the current crisis, he added, with revenues at their lowest levels in two decades.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, a six-month shutdown would lead Palestine’s GDP to shrink by 7.1 percent, which would “represent a negative shock among the largest annual contractions recorded since reliable statistics began in 1994,” Mladenov said.

“With very limited control over its economy, the Palestinian Government does not have access to the conventional monetary and fiscal tools necessary to remedy the crisis,” he said. “These are in the hands of Israel.”

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov (left) meets with Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, April 16, 2019. (Courtesy, UNSCO)

The UN envoy welcomed the PA’s emergency plan aimed at keeping public spending to a minimum. At the same time, he urged the government in Jerusalem to guarantee the steady flowing of funds to keep the Palestinian economy afloat.

“Israel has a critical responsibility,” he said.

Last month, Israel’s Finance Ministry transferred NIS 120 million ($33 million) to Ramallah. “This is an important first step. Urgent discussions however need to take place on how Israel can ensure regular transfers,” Mladenov added.

“Both parties must work quickly to resolve barriers standing in the way of regular transfers, including withheld clearance revenues.”

Mladenov said the PA would also require “generous external support and technical assistance” to help it overcome the pandemic.

On Saturday, Mladenov co-signed a statement issued by the UN’s five special envoys to the Middle East, which called on conflicting parties to freeze hostilities due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“We call on all parties to engage, in good faith and without preconditions, on negotiating immediate halts to ongoing hostilities, sustaining existing ceasefires, putting in place more durable and comprehensive ceasefires, and achieving longer-term resolutions to the persistent conflicts across the region,” the statement read.

“We also appeal to all to exercise maximum restraint, de-escalate tensions and work to resolve differences through dialogue, negotiation, mediation or other peaceful means. We further call on all to refrain from any activities that can lead to further deterioration of stability and security in any country or the region as a whole.”

Last month, the UN praised Israel for its support of the Palestinian health system, but officials in Ramallah continued to badmouth the government in Jerusalem, accusing it of abusing the coronavirus to deepen its “occupation” of the Palestinian people.

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