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Coronavirus and the quagmire of the disputed territories

A joint Israel-Palestinian Authority health policy hooked to a common economic policy is needed before the disease gets out of control, which could lead the population to turn quickly to terror activities.

Palestinian security forces on guard as they block the entrance to the city of Shechem to prevent coronavirus (COVID-19) spread, March 23, 2020. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Palestinian security forces on guard as they block the entrance to the city of Shechem to prevent coronavirus (COVID-19) spread, March 23, 2020. Photo by Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90.
Eitan Dangot

As the coronavirus pandemic plays out in Israel and around the world, it’s imperative that we prevent a major spread of the virus in the two Palestinian entities that border Israel. Also critical is a consideration of the health/security ramifications if such efforts do not succeed.

Israel has a core interest in tracking the spread of the virus in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and in assisting the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to flatten the outbreak curve, as well as formulating an exit strategy for the day after the pandemic ends.

This creates a new three-way interest between Israel and the two Palestinian entities. All have to focus on combating spread of COVID-19. Terrorist activities can disrupt the war against the virus’s spread, and it is currently in everyone’s interest that those activities diminish.

Additionally, preventing a disease-fueled humanitarian-economic crisis in Gaza and the West Bank is critical. Such a crisis would only further accelerate the spread of the virus, creating a vicious feedback loop.

Entity 1: The West Bank

In its battle against the pandemic, Israel must distinguish between its health policy towards the West Bank, where 2.8 million Palestinians live next to half-a-million Israeli civilians, and the Gaza Strip, home to more than 2 million Palestinians.

The West Bank’s conditions mean that Israeli-Palestinian economic and civilian activities are interspersed and inseparable. A joint Israel-P.A. health policy hooked to a common economic policy is now needed.

The Israeli and P.A. health systems already coordinate their actions in the fields of policy and prevention against the coronavirus. Professional medical cooperation is underway. Israel is also providing information, training, equipment and maintenance to Palestinian health personnel.

The P.A. has adopted Israel’s health policy, which is based on closure, isolation and the opening of designated recovery centers for coronavirus patients. It is also receiving test kits from Israel and the international community.

At the time of this writing, the P.A. has reported 214 confirmed patients. It has imposed an authority-wide closure and divided its territory into five to six areas, which are demarcated by checkpoints and the presence of Palestinian security forces.

The number of patients that the P.A. is reporting should be viewed with skepticism due to its general lack of transparency. In order to boost their readiness and ability to deal with the risks to public health, Israel transferred 120 million shekels ($33.5 million) to Ramallah—money that comes from a settling of tax and trade accounts between the two sides.

P.A. head Mahmoud Abbas is conducting backstage management of the crisis from his home. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has taken charge of internal responses, and in the process has strengthened his position in Fatah for the day after Abbas.

Until recently, Israel has allowed tens of thousands of P.A. workers to remain in its territory, but under a now more stringent policy, it is gradually returning most of those workers.

With 100,000-plus Palestinians dependent upon work in Israel for their income, the return of Palestinian workers to the West Bank ratchets up the social, economic and health pressures on the P.A. This, in turn, obligates Israel to increase the transfer of money from tax and trade balances to the P.A. over the coming months.

In addition, the fact that Ramadan will begin at the end of the month means that the Palestinian population is making economic preparations to mark the holiday.

A social-economic crisis fueled by an uncontrollable outbreak of COVID-19 can deliver a shocking blow to the P.A.’s rule, and in an extreme scenario, lead to a deterioration that will have significant consequences for both its domestic situation and the threat of terrorism against Israel.

On the other hand, P.A. officials under Shtayyeh’s leadership have been inciting against Israel, accusing it of having an interest to increase the disease among the Palestinian population—an obvious falsehood that ignores the ongoing coordination and requests for further assistance, activities that Shtayyeh himself is involved in.

A deterioration of the health and economic situations could lead to chaos with deep implications for both sides. The basis for stabilizing the West Bank over the next three months therefore lies in supporting the P.A.’s health efforts and bolstering it on the economic front. Ongoing security coordination between Israel and the P.A., and civilian cooperation efforts, will also be of key significance.

Entity 2: The Gaza Strip

Meanwhile, the fact that the P.A. is continuing to disengage from the Gaza Strip is further evidence of the fact that the two Palestinian entities are utterly isolated from one another and have no common interests whatsoever.

The population density of Gaza, as well as its economic-humanitarian situation and subpar health care, creates a combustible mix that can lead to an explosion of extremist activities if the virus takes hold there.

An outbreak in a crowded urban area with poor sanitation and minimal infrastructure, as well as a population with low purchasing power, would precipitate a major crisis. This means that Israel must direct significant attention and activities towards battling the virus in Gaza as well.

The leadership of Hamas is fully aware of the potential for massive damage to its rule if the pandemic takes root and the already flimsy economic situation nosedives. It has set up 22 isolation centers for treating patients and has received economic assistance from Qatar, which has vowed to transfer $150 million for Gaza’s residents and government needs. Still, Hamas remains in major economic want for dealing with the disease.

To prevent a major outbreak in Gaza, both Israel and Egypt will need to facilitate Qatari efforts, and Egypt and Israel will have their own roles to play beyond that. For now, Hamas has significantly decreased its terror activities against Israel in order to focus on the health threat. But Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad could renew terror activities of varying intensity in order to attract global attention to their needs in battling the virus.

Israel will need to facilitate the transfer of medical equipment, knowledge and as much support as possible to the Gazan medical system to avoid such a scenario.

Despite the many risks, the current conditions also bring with them a new opportunity to reach a long-term ceasefire with Hamas. If the disease’s spread is slowed and economic crises are averted, the chance of a calm descending upon the Palestinians and Israel will grow.

Maj. Gen. Eitan Dangot is an expert at The MirYam Institute. He concluded his extensive career as the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) in 2014. Prior to that post, he served as the military secretary to three Israeli defense ministers: Shaul Mofaz, Amir Peretz and Ehud Barak.


The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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