Israeli-Palestinian virus cooperation imperiled amid unity gov’t, annexation bid

Collaboration continues, but goodwill dissipates as number of Palestinians infected in Israel climbs, and coalition deal paving way for extending sovereignty is signed

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Palestinian municipal workers disinfect the parking lot of a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 12, 2020 (Flash90)
Palestinian municipal workers disinfect the parking lot of a hospital in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 12, 2020 (Flash90)

When the coronavirus crisis hit, it met Israeli-Palestinian ties at the latest in a series of low points.

As the pandemic began rapidly spreading on both sides of the Green Line in early March, Jerusalem appeared to be marching just as quickly toward plans to annex large swaths of the West Bank, in a move almost certain to bring relations with Ramallah to a breaking point (an eventuality that now appears nearly sealed under a new coalition deal between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz).

And yet, against that very backdrop, ties between Israel and the Palestinian Authority actually expanded, with the pandemic necessitating enhanced cooperation on the public health and security fronts.

That cooperation has included sending medical supplies and coronavirus testing kits to the West Bank, the training of Palestinian doctors on treatment methods, the authorization for Palestinian security forces to enter East Jerusalem neighborhoods — from which they are usually barred by Israel — to help enforce quarantine and provisions to allow the entry of tens of thousands of Palestinian workers into Israel, even when the vast majority of other employees were forced to remain at home.

Palestinian laborers enter Israel to work through a checkpoint between the West Bank city of Hebron and Beersheva while carrying blankets and mattresses on March 18, 2020, as for the first time they have to stay for one to two months inside Israel amid the coronavirus pandemic. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

The collaboration was so extensive it even earned the praise of UN officials last month, who lauded it as “excellent” and “unprecedented” joint work that “will save lives.”

But as quickly as it came, the goodwill appeared to dissipate. As the number of infected Palestinians grew, senior PA officials began accusing the Jewish state of purposefully infecting Palestinian workers with the virus. Israel responded with outrage and warned Ramallah of “significant consequences” if it continued with such claims.

For the time being, cooperation on the ground has withstood the nasty rhetoric, and PA Finance Minister Shukri Bishara even announced last week that Israel has agreed to provide an NIS 500 million ($139 million) advance on the monthly tax revenues it transfers to Ramallah, in order to make up for recent economic stagnation.

However, analysts warn that continued collaboration should not be taken for granted, and that a failure to understand mutual sensitivities could lead to a downgrade in ties that would place both Israeli and Palestinian lives at risk.

In this Tuesday, April 7, 2020 photo, a paramedic from the Palestinian Ministry of Health disinfects Palestinian laborers to help contain the coronavirus, as they exit an Israeli army checkpoint after returning from work in Israel, near the West Bank village of Nilin, west of Ramallah. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

From ‘cooperation mechanism’ to ‘medical annexation’

During his daily press briefings in the early weeks of the pandemic, PA government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim regularly mentioned the cooperation with Israeli authorities.

Describing its extent, a Palestinian official speaking on condition of anonymity revealed to The Times of Israel last month that a special mechanism had been established to communicate “moment by moment” on all issues related to the virus, saying it would function alongside the existing cooperation on security and civil matters.

“The virus knows no borders and can infect everyone,” the official said then, adding that the Palestinians “oppose the occupation but need to work together” with Israel on this issue.

But in the weeks since, such amicable statements have not been voiced again by Palestinian officials, be it on or off the record.

Palestinian Authority government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim speaks at a press conference in Ramallah on April 1, 2020. (Wafa)

Instead, Milhim and others, including PA President Mohammad Shtayyeh, have stepped up their rhetoric against Israel.

When asked about the cooperation during a recent press conference, Milhim recommended that the World Health Organization “supervise”it.

“We don’t accept any relationship with [Israel] on the basis of domination and hegemony. We accept relations based on an international umbrella [WHO] that stewards the degree of coordination to stave off the international contagion,” he said.

The growing frustration in Ramallah has surrounded the issue of Palestinian workers in Israel — already a point of sensitivity for the PA, which would rather its economy not be reliant on labor across the Green Line.

Some 45,000 of 120,000 authorized Palestinian workers have continued to work in Israel, now staying in the Jewish state for an extended period of time in order to limit movement as much as possible, an Israeli security official told The Times of Israel.

But the PA has accused Israel of also allowing some workers to move across the Green Line unmonitored, while carrying the virus in from the Jewish population.

According to PA figures, over two thirds of the 309 confirmed cases in the West Bank have been of Palestinian workers in Israel or those who had come into contact with them upon their return.

Palestinian Authority Mohammad Shtayyeh speaks to reporters during a press conference on April 13, 2020. (Wafa)

Addressing the issue in a Facebook post earlier this month, Shtayyeh accused Israel of “thuggery,” of undermining Palestinian public health and of turning a blind eye to the issue of Palestinian workers returning to the West Bank.

He has called on Israel to test workers for the virus and better facilitate their return to the West Bank — a request which he says has only been partially heeded since.

Shtayyeh has also pointed to footage of a Palestinian worker who he said was “dumped” at a checkpoint by Israeli authorities after complaining that he wasn’t feeling well.

In a remark that drew accusations of anti-Semitism, Milhim told reporters during a press briefing last week that Israel is “suffering from a lack of commitment to preventative measures to contain the virus because they like money and want to keep their economy running.”

As further proof of Israeli efforts to “infect” Palestinians, Shtayyeh and other PA officials have pointed to an IDF raid in Hebron late last month during which a soldier was filmed spitting on a parked car.

Palestinian officials have objected to the continuation of arrest raids throughout the pandemic and have made a show of sending disinfectant teams to subsequently spray down entire buildings that have been “exposed” by the presence of Israeli troops.

Earlier this month, PA customs officers seized a truck full of washing machines, electrical appliance, furniture and other materials that had been smuggled illegally into the West Bank from Israel. They then proceeded to torch the entire shipment in a scene that was distributed widely on social media because, according to them, it could have contained traces of the virus.

Further angering Ramallah were remarks made by an anonymous Health Ministry official late last month to Channel 12 in which he claimed Israel would have to “medically annex” the West Bank in order to effectively deal with the virus and that the PA was under-reporting the number of cases.

Palestinian health workers handling a coronavirus test sample of Palestinian workers as they cross back from Israel at a checkpoint in Tarqumiya on March 25, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

During a press conference several days later Shtayyeh said Israel’s Health Ministry had apologized to PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila for the “unofficial statements.”

With the rhetoric against Israel showing no signs of cooling, Israeli officials have begun losing their patience, issuing warnings of their own to the PA.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) Kamil Abu Rukun issued a statement on Friday saying the “baseless complaints from senior PA figures… crossed a red line and disparaged the enormous efforts that Israel is making in the face of the shared challenge and crisis besetting the entire region.”

“I call upon the Palestinian leadership to retract its baseless declarations — and I warn that there could be repercussions in various spheres,” the COGAT head said.

Such a retraction, however, has yet to come.

Michael Milshtein, who served as a senior adviser for Palestinian Affairs at COGAT offices and currently works as the head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African studies, expressed concern that the angry rhetoric might incite violence.

Michael Milshtein. (Twitter)

“We are lucky that these negative announcements from the senior Palestinian officials haven’t affected civil and military corporation, which has continued at 100 percent, but many Palestinians believe what Shtayyeh and others are saying, and I worry that some will try to act on those [false] assumptions,” Milshtein said.

At the same time, the former senior COGAT official lamented that Israeli authorities have not done enough “to explain ourselves to the Palestinian public and show what we are doing [to help them].”

Who’s in charge?

Another point of contention surrounding the virus has been PA activity in East Jerusalem, which is under Israeli sovereignty but is viewed by Ramallah as the capital of its future state. The Palestinian health ministry even counts the carriers in East Jerusalem among its national tally of cases.

While Israel initially appeared interested in providing some rare leeway on the issue when it allowed PA security forces into Palestinian neighborhoods east of the security barrier in order to help with quarantine enforcement, such gestures have since been forsaken as the IDF has returned to arresting senior Palestinian officials in East Jerusalem, including PA Jerusalem Affairs Minister Fadi al-Hidmi and PA Jerusalem Governor Adnan Ghaith, on charges of illegal activity violating Israel’s sovereignty in the capital.

The same pretext was used by Israeli forces to confiscate hundreds of food packages being distributed to families in need by activists from PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party earlier this month.

Israel has been conducting testing in East Jerusalem, but Palestinians say the efforts are insufficient. Last week, Israeli forces shut down a coronavirus testing facility in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan and arrested four of its staffers due to their ties to the PA.

The clinic’s manager said he had helped establish the site due to a testing shortage in East Jerusalem, where Palestinian neighborhoods are plagued by overcrowding and are generally neglect by Israeli authorities.

“You [Israel] are not helping us and are preventing us from getting help from others,” Silwan resident, Farhi Abu Diab told the Haaretz daily. “For the first time, we have a common enemy, so let’s work together.”

Lack of sensitivity

While he said that the Israeli-Palestinian cooperation has been able to weather the pandemic until now, former PA minister and current Birzeit University political science professor Ghassan Khatib told The Times of Israel that an uptick in settler violence amid the pandemic puts further strain on collaboration.

“Settlers are taking advantage of the situation to provoke attacks and take over new land and Israeli authorities are not doing anything,” he claimed.

Last week, Israel Police opened a probe into allegations that a group of far-right extremists assaulted three Palestinians and hurled firebombs at their vehicles before fleeing.

Two Palestinian cars allegedly firebombed by hilltop youth staying at an IDF-built “quarantine outpost” nearby in Metzoke Dragot on April 14. 2020. (Carmel Dangor/Twitter)

The incident took place near Metzoke Dragot, where a group of 20 Jewish extremists were being housed in an outpost established for them by the IDF in order to maintain quarantine, after they came in contact with a COVID-19 carrier.

The army allowed the group to reside in the outpost after they smashed the windows of a bus ferrying them to a different quarantine site. Police are probing whether the fuel provided to them for the outpost generator was used to torch the Palestinian vehicles.

“I think the cooperation has not been dramatically affected by all this and that it continues because it is necessitated by the reality,” Khatib said. But Israelis need to show more sensitivity on the issues of workers, settler violence and East Jerusalem.”

Magen David Adom medical workers seen at a drive-through site to collect samples for coronavirus testing at the Shuafat Refugee Camp in east Jerusalem, April 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Khatib acknowledged Israeli frustration over accusations that it has been responsible for infections on the Palestinian side and suggested that “both sides need to reassure each other and be more sensitive to the other’s concerns.”

Milshtein pointed out that since the start of the pandemic, the Israeli security establishment has recognized the “importance of Palestinian economic stability” and that now is not the time for punitive financial measures or budget cuts.

While he deemed the current state of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation as “relatively stable,” Milshtein noted that the new announcement of an Israeli unity government that includes a plan to annex parts of the West Bank would have far more negative on-the-ground implications than the current war of words between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

If that plan indeed moves forward, cooperation could break down completely, Khatib added.

Most Popular
read more: