A bird flying from the Gaza Strip to Ashkelon doesn’t have the first idea it crosses The Green line and carries bird flu. If we don’t start cooperating on that we’re not making any progress and we’re making the situation worse. – Yuli Edelstein, Speaker of the Knesset, 2013-2020
The Palestinians Authority has reported 155 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the West Bank and 12 confirmed cases in the Gaza Strip prompting Israeli officials to work with the PA to contain the virus. According to Major Yotam Shefer, Head of the International Department of Civil Administration in the West Bank, Israel and the Palestinian Authority are working together to contain the virus along with COGAT and The Israeli Health Ministry.
“Israel delivered 400 medical kits to the PA enabling observations of the virus and 500 protective equipment kits for Palestinian medical staff and security forces as well,” Shefer says. “Also there are joint tutorials and professional medical workshops attended by both Israeli and Palestinian medical staff where they are given the knowledge regarding the virus and proper tools to deal with this.”
Arab restaurants and business have shuttered as a result of the curfew and quarantine imposed by the PA. Closures at major checkpoints in The West Bank and Gaza have taken place, with the exception of humanitarian cases such as medical treatment in Israeli hospitals and the entrance of medical staff.
In early March the Israeli government announced it would allow Palestinian workers in the agriculture, construction and service sectors to work in Israel during the coronavirus pandemic. Palestinian workers employed in Atarot Industrial Zone may also enter, but all workers who enter Israel are subject to an accommodations order for one to two months. The workers must stay in Israel for the period of time defined and if they return to Judea or Samaria they will not be allowed to re-enter Israel until further notice. The city of Bethlehem is also closed due to the spread of the virus, a decision instituted by the PA. Foreign nationals were also ordered to leave under the guidelines.
“We made a large effort to coordinate the passage of 1,000 international citizens who were staying in Bethlehem toward Ben Gurion Airport ensuring their safe return back to their countries. This was coordinated in cooperation with dozens of embassies and consulates,” Shefer says.
According to information they received from the Palestinian Ministry of Health the spread of COVID-19 began with tourists in Bethlehem and then expanded to several residents. Others returned from abroad infected with the virus after crossing Allenby Bridge from Jordan. Shefer says there is at least one early case, where a Palestinian worker was infected by his employer in Israel.
On April 4, the Palestinian Health Ministry published a press release stating they need 100 ventilators and 140 ICU beds. Kobi Michael, Senior Research Fellow and Editor of “Strategic Assessment” at the Institute for National Security Studies, says neglecting them means “we will be infected and affected immediately,” so it is in the best interest of Israel to be a part of any required assistance to the PA and Gaza Strip. He says Israel is deeply concerned with regards to the situation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and there is very close cooperation with Israel and the PA in the West Bank. Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh is aware of this “because he controls the Palestinian system” Michael says.
But on April 1, Palestinian Prime Minister Dr. Mohammad Shtayyeh tweeted that Israel was thwarting the PA’s efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
According to Michael, these accusations are the same ones “hurled” by some Palestinian officials, including the Spokesman of the Palestinian government in the West Bank. He says they are taking advantage of the current situation by attempting to delegitimize the State of Israel in the international arena. The accusations were targeted at Israel’s approach to Palestinian workers. However, Shefer says Israeli police are enforcing the accommodations order to make sure employers take responsibility for Palestinian workers and have proof of accommodations. But Michael says they must remember Israel is also in crisis.
“We have to remember Israel allowed something like 50,000 Palestinian workers to come and work in Israel under the condition they committed to remain in Israel for two months because Israel wanted to contain the situation and restrict the daily movements that may spread the coronavirus.,” Michael says. “Israel has demanded from employees to require all the conditions and situations to enable their employees to have a normal life here in Israel.”
It’s unlikely the workers will leave, even during Pesach or Passover, because they are employed and getting paid. The work allows them to send money back home to their families during a worldwide economic crisis. Michael says the incitement is believed to be based on the conspiracy that Jewish Zionist created the virus and Israel has the cure for the disease “and this is how they will make all the big money and control the global economy,” Michael states mocking the false allegations. There are some rumblings among Palestinians and the PA, that Israel is trying to increase the spread of the virus in the West Bank in order to annex the West Bank in the future. Michael reiterates that no one should take the accusations seriously.
“We are talking about one state between the river and the Mediterranean because there is no option to divide the State of Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip,” he says. “The virus doesn’t recognize the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel, nor the border between the West Bank and Israel. We are talking about a very small area compared to other countries or states.”
But Michael does admit there is a working assumption in the Israeli government that the figures given by the PA and Hamas are not accurate. He says the number of infected people in the Gaza Strip is higher than the number declared by Hamas authorities. Hamas is much more sensitive to its constituency than the PA, because the situation in the Gaza Strip is much worse than the situation in PA controlled territories garnering low levels of trust among Palestinians, even before the eruption of COVID-19 Michael says.
“The numbers increase every day because Israel provides them with the medical equipment, which is required for the checks, but the numbers are still low,” Michael says. “There is something like 2 million people in the Gaza Strip and the population of Israel is 9 million. We have more than 6,500 cases, and even in Israel we assume the numbers are higher. We have to assume the numbers are higher in Palestinian areas because they don’t have access to as many test kits.”
Despite the tension, Michael says the PA and Gaza are doing great at containing the situation. He was “a bit surprised,” but it’s a very good indication of the level of functionality within the PA that he hopes will continue after the coronavirus pandemic.
“They are very serious with regards to the curfew and the measures taken in the big cities,” Michael says. “The population is very disciplined.”