The Middle East is so often viewed in a negative context. Wars, clashes of cultures, corruption, poverty and international interventions typically capture the headlines. But the coronavirus pandemic, where essential cooperation is occurring despite longstanding conflicts, allows us to look at this region through a different lens.
More than 1.38 million people across the Middle East have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the WHO, and those numbers may continue to rise. To date, more than 52,000 have been infected and 470 have died in Israel, while in the West Bank and Gaza, a little more than 10,000 have been infected and 76 have died.
One might wonder how this happens, given the high density of the population in the Palestinian areas and the lack of Palestinian investment in quality health care. The answer is simple: In a time of a global pandemic, disagreements are placed aside and ways for cooperation in the war against the virus are sought.
In Israel—an internationally recognized hub for medical research—more than 70 companies, labs, academic centers and scientific institutes are working tirelessly to find a vaccine, as well as develop methods to track the spread of COVID-19. At the very early stages of the pandemic, Israeli doctors reached out to Palestinian health-care workers, offering to share their expertise and provide assistance, and the Palestinians accepted the help. Israeli medical teams contacted their Palestinian colleagues in hospitals around the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem. The Palestinian health system tends to be less developed than the Israeli system; moreover, it lacks the budget to buy proper equipment to cope with such an unknown “enemy.”
Professor Elhanan Bar-On of the Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv traveled to Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank, bringing equipment and training medical staff with him. “None of us have time now to deal with peripheral issues—political or otherwise. We’re all in the same boat, and we have to row together, to reach a safe harbor,” Bar-On recently said on KAN TV news.
Israel has long provided medical care to neighboring countries, even those without formal relations. During the nine-year-old Syrian civil war, for instance, Israeli NGOs provided medical equipment and treatment, and the Israeli government operated a field hospital for Syrian patients as part of “Operation Good Neighbor.” Thousands of Syrians, in particular children, were treated in Israeli hospitals and their lives were saved.
Sadly, not all Palestinian officials favor this medical cooperation. “The settlements are incubators for the virus. There is no reason to go and work in Israel,” Palestinian Authority spokesman Ibrahim Milham said on April 14.
This attempt to connect the pandemic with politics, however, has failed.
One of the fundamental values in Judaism is preserving life. The combination of this value with the acknowledgement of the importance of regional cooperation when it comes to health has led to significant on-the-ground activities.
Every week, Israel sends medical equipment into the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. From July 12-18 alone, Israel transferred 163 tons of medical supplies there. It also facilitated the delivery of equipment from Turkey and the UAE to Gaza and the West Bank with the first-ever official UAE airplane landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport on June 9, all in the name of health. This groundbreaking delivery was accomplished even though Hamas fired rockets into Israel before and after the UAE donation for the Palestinians arrived.
Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined. Before the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 150,000 Palestinians worked in Israel daily. As the disease spread, the number of workers permitted to enter Israel was reduced by 50 percent, but no doubt will rise when the situation stabilizes. An average Palestinian worker in Israel receives a salary and social benefits better than in the Palestinian Territories. With the Israeli salary and benefits, it is estimated that a Palestinian employee can support a family of eight.
Furthermore, a new Israeli law states that employers of Palestinian workers in the Jewish state must pay their medical insurance in case they become infected with COVID-19.
With the peace process stagnated—and both Israelis and Arabs focused on the pandemic—we must look at the broader picture. What really matters? Is it people’s lives or political dialogue? It seems that the medical personnel have offered a solution and got a positive response: We should be able to promote health and cooperate with each other.
Given the proximity of Israelis and Palestinians, if one side gets sick, the other could also quickly become infected. It is in the mutual interests of both populations that individuals and families thrive and live healthily. Hopefully, the current medical cooperation will be expanded to other arenas, including when it comes to talks of peace.
Lt. Col. (res.) Avital Leibovich is director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Jerusalem office. Shay Avshalom Zavdi is director of Media Relations and ACCESS Israel, AJC’s young-leadership program.