UN praises ‘excellent’ Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in fight against pandemic

But officials in Ramallah, while acknowledging coordinating emergency response with Jerusalem, continue to slam Israel, say ‘occupation knows nothing of humanity’

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Palestinian health workers handle a Coronavirus test sample of Palestinian workers as they cross back from Israel at a checkpoint near Hebron, March 25, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian health workers handle a Coronavirus test sample of Palestinian workers as they cross back from Israel at a checkpoint near Hebron, March 25, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Perhaps uncharacteristically, the United Nations has showered praise on Israel for its “excellent” cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in fighting the coronavirus.

PA government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem has repeatedly mentioned working together with Israel in his daily press briefings. However, other Palestinian top officials have continued to condemn the Jewish state, accusing it of cruelly abusing the health crisis to violate Palestinian human rights.

“We hold discussions and consultations every day with the relevant UN officials. We hear from them praise for the State of Israel for the coordination and good cooperation in dealing with the coronavirus crisis, which in our view is essential and necessary for an effective response to the spread of the virus,” Alon Bar, deputy director-general for the UN and international organizations at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said Sunday.

Israeli and Palestinian officials, having long worked together on security and civil matters, recently set up a special mechanism to communicate “moment by moment” on all issues related to the virus, a senior Palestinian official told The Times of Israel.

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)

But while the Palestinians don’t generally talk too much about their coordination with Israel, various UN officials went out of their way over the past week to highlight it.

Last Tuesday, the Palestine branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs — which is not known for its praise for Israeli government activities — published its first “emergency situation report,” noting “unprecedented cooperation on efforts aimed at containing the epidemic” between Israeli and Palestinian authorities.

“Representatives from both ministries of health, as well as from Israel’s Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) have been meeting on a regular basis to agree on matters of mutual concern, such the understandings concerning Palestinian workers employed in Israel,” the report stated.

“As part of this efforts, COGAT is facilitating four trainings for Palestinian medical teams, while the Israeli [Health Ministry] donated over 1,000 testing kits and thousands of PPEs [Personal Protective Equipment] to the West Bank and Gaza.”

A Palestinian Authority policeman delivers supplies to the hotel staff who tested positive to coronavirus in Bethlehem, West Bank, March 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

The PA last week also acknowledged that Israel had transferred $25 million in previously withheld tax money, after PA Finance Minister Shukri Bishara and his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Kahlon, met — according to the PA Finance Ministry — to discuss the economic impact of the coronavirus on Israel and the Palestinians.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres mentioned the close cooperation between Jerusalem and Ramallah on Wednesday during a press conference announcing the launch of the “COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan.” All UN special envoys in volatile areas have been urging warring parties to agree on a ceasefire, he said, adding that he was encouraged by the fact that these calls have resonated in some areas.

“I see… different parties to a conflict cooperating in order to respond to this dramatic situation,” he said. “To give an example, in fighting COVID-19, the Palestinian Authority and Israel have been able to work together, even if we know the extreme division that exists politically between the two.”

Also on Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin phoned PA President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the pandemic.

“The world is dealing with a crisis that does not distinguish between people or where they live,” Rivlin told Abbas, adding “the cooperation between us is vital to ensure the health of both Israelis and Palestinians.”

He added that “our ability to work together in times of crisis is also testament to our ability to work together in the future for the good of us all.”

Two days later, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov briefed members of the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the European Union, the United States and Russia) about the effects of the coronavirus on the already tense situation in Gaza. In his remarks, he stressed the “excellent coordination and cooperation that has been established with all Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors,” according to a readout of the briefing.

United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov at a press conference at the (UNSCO) offices in Gaza City, September 25, 2017. (Adel Hana/AP)

“Israeli and Palestinian authorities continue to coordinate their responses closely and constructively, a major factor in the containment achieved so far,” the readout added, stressing that Israel has also facilitated the entry of “critical supplies and equipment” into the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave.

“Examples of critical supplies include swabs for collection of samples and other laboratory supplies required for COVID-19 testing and Personal Protective Equipment to protect health workers. This is in addition to Israel’s cooperation to allow for the movement and access of personnel involved in the COVID-19 response to and from both the West Bank and Gaza,” the readout stated.

On Saturday, the UN released a detailed press release about the briefing, stressing Mladenov’s praise of the Israeli-Palestinian coordination in the fight against the pandemic.

A UN press release saying good things about Israel was yet “more proof aliens have taken over,” joked Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, a pro-Israel watchdog based in Geneva.

But it didn’t stop there. On Sunday, Mladenov’s deputy, Jamie McGoldrick, who coordinates the UN’s humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians on the ground, took to Twitter to “commend the Palestinian and Israeli authorities for their efforts to deal with COVID19 and for the exemplary levels of collaboration.

“Their close coordination and prompt actions will save lives,” he added.

The only UN-affiliated body that was critical of Israel regarding coordinating the COVID-19 crisis was the World Health Organization, whose Palestine branch’s latest monthly report accused Israel of obstructing Palestinians’ access to vital medicine.

It quoted a Gazan mother of five named Itidal who said she feared to travel to East Jerusalem, where she usually goes to pick up her prescription of Herceptin, which she takes to fight breast cancer. In order to leave the Gaza Strip, she needs to apply for a special permit from the Israeli authorities, which is sometimes granted and sometimes denied, according to the report.

“Despite my fear and confusion from the new situation of coronavirus, I persisted to apply because I felt that if I don’t get the treatment my health will just deteriorate,” Itidal was quoted as saying. Why can’t the drugs simply be shipped to Gaza? she wondered.

Workers wearing protective gear spray disinfectant as a precaution against the coronavirus, at the main market in Gaza City, March 19, 2020. (Adel Hana/AP)

“As patients, why should we suffer to receive treatment? I appeal to the authorities to provide the drugs we need in Gaza at this difficult time,” she went on, according to the WHO report. “That will eliminate needless suffering of cancer patients, support our efforts and reduce costs.”

‘The hateful occupation continues its aggressive practices’

Palestinian officials were less subtle than Itidal in their criticism of Israel, attacking the government in Jerusalem in the harshest terms.

Last Tuesday, Milhem, the PA government spokesman, accused Israel of “dumping” an ill Palestinian worker — who he said had been suspected of carrying coronavirus — at a checkpoint in the central West Bank a day earlier.

“They dumped him in the middle of the road while he was experiencing pain,” he said. “They welcome us as healthy people and then throw us in the middle of the road as sick people. This is in contravention of human rights.”

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh bewailed Israel’s “hateful occupation [that] continues its aggressive practices against our people.

“This occupation knows nothing of humanity, and the international community is required to curb its illegal practices,” he said.

On Sunday, senior Palestinian official Saeb Erekat angrily pointed out that the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Arabic Twitter account posted a call for regional cooperation with several Arab states in the region — but not Palestine.

“As someone who knows well the extent of cooperation between Israel & the PA on #Corona, it’s unfortunate that you choose to sow division during this time of crisis,” the ministry tweeted in response.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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