As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, Israel, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups in the Gaza Strip have reached an informal understanding about the need to maintain a de facto ceasefire.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a recent speech that “today, we are facing an enemy whose threat is clear, large and wide. This threat does not stop at borders, but rather involves the world. We are in the midst of a … global war.”
He added that “in any battle, there’s a target and an enemy, the problem in this battle is that the enemy is ‘coronavirus,’ which is anonymous in all its aspects. Its threat has become obvious to all people.”
The coronavirus pandemic is but the latest crisis to hit Israel’s northern neighbor, which is already struggling with ongoing political turmoil, mass anti-government protests and severe economic crisis.
The first case of the coronavirus in Lebanon was reported on Feb. 23, when a 45-year-old woman tested positive after returning to Lebanon from the Iranian holy city of Qom. Many in Lebanon, including many in the country’s Shi’ite community, had previously raised the alarm about the frequent flights arriving in Lebanon from Iran, as the Islamic Republic is dealing with one of the deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in the world. However, Nasrallah did not stop or explain the flights.
Many in Lebanon believe that these flights were not only bringing Lebanese back to Lebanon, but also Iranians infected with the virus to be treated at Hezbollah’s private hospitals. The fact that the media were not allowed to enter the airport when these flights arrived, they believed, indicated that Hezbollah was hiding something, or someone.
In a recent speech, Nasrallah said the global war against the pandemic can be won if everyone does their part.
“Responsibility vis à vis coronavirus is comprehensive. The virus can be defeated if everyone takes responsibility and plays their part,” he said.
The Hezbollah leader said that prayers were the “most effective weapon in the current battle,” but urged people to pray at home and not to visit mosques or churches. He underlined the importance of self-isolation in stemming the spread of the virus, and called on all those with symptoms to report them immediately, adding that it was a religious duty to follow the instructions of the health authorities.
In his speech, Nasrallah also called on the country’s banks to “act responsibly” amid the current crisis.
In Lebanon, the government, security forces and Hezbollah are working hand in hand to try to contain the disease. Lebanon has closed all educational institutions, restaurants, nightclubs, pubs, cafes, exhibitions, parks, cinemas, malls and other gathering venues, and has also, if belatedly, banned flights from 11 hard-hit countries, including Iran. Hezbollah, too, has frozen all travel to Iran, and imposed a quarantine in Syria on a group of students who were returning to Lebanon via Damascus airport.
Hamas in the Gaza Strip
The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip is among the most densely populated areas on earth, and its health services are weak. As a result, there is concern that the pandemic could spread very quickly in Gaza, causing a humanitarian crisis. The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Gaza’s health-care system will not be able to deal with an outbreak, and Israeli officials have expressed fear that such a crisis is only a matter of time.
Hamas, too, is very aware of the risk; the recent relative calm on the Israel-Gaza border stems from the Hamas leadership’s understanding that it is dependent on Israel and Egypt to deal with this crisis.
Hamas and the other terrorist factions in Gaza are also worried that if any attack is launched against Israel, Israel may take advantage of the world’s focus on the coronavirus outbreak to carry out massive airstrikes in Gaza, and possibly assassinate terrorist leaders. Hamas officials say the terrorist organization will maintain the current calm that this is not the time for clashes at the Gaza border.
The Gaza Health Ministry confirmed the first two cases of COVID-19 in Gaza on March 22. The two patients were placed in quarantine in a field hospital in the border town of Rafah upon arrival from Egypt. The hospital is designed to treat coronavirus patients entering the Gaza Strip through Egypt. The ministry said that tests conducted on 19 Palestinians who returned to the Gaza Strip through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt were negative.
It is in Israel’s utmost interest to ensure that the pandemic does not hit Gaza, and Israel has already delivered 200 coronavirus test kits to Gaza as part of an effort to prevent an outbreak there. On March 22, Israel announced that all crossings into Israel from Gaza have been closed.
Hamas has restricted obligatory prayers in the mosques, encouraging people to perform prayers at home instead, and has closed women’s prayer rooms. Gatherings have been limited to 100 people and schools will remain shut through March.
Palestinian health officials have expressed concern that amid a serious outbreak in the Gaza Strip, thousands of Palestinians may try to force their way into Israel and/or Egypt.
In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel, Hezbollah, Hamas and the other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip are in agreement that controlling the spread of the virus is the highest priority. However, the current lull in violence is temporary, and will last only until the virus is defeated.
The pandemic is also serving as an object lesson in the risks of biological weapons, which do not distinguish between religions, ideologies and borders. It is possible this may deter groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas from seeking to obtain or use biological weapons in the future.
Regardless, Israel must heed the lessons learned from this pandemic to prepare for a future bioterrorism threat.
Shaul Shay is a senior research fellow at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and former deputy head of Israel’s National Security Council.
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