As it disrupts markets and lives around the world, the coronavirus is also changing the dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. No one expects the century-long conflict to resolve in the near future, but both sides are now putting aside the tensions that usually dictate reality in the region and prioritizing the fight against the pandemic.
After the effective collapse of the peace process and the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, successive Israeli governments have sought to create a reality where Palestinians are mostly separated from Jews. The West Bank is the largest centre of Palestinian life, with nearly 3 million Palestinians. It is separated from Israel by a secured concrete wall, with 14 checkpoints that allow monitored passage of Palestinian workers and other permit holders into Israel. Until emergency measures kicked into effect last week, nearly 100,000 Palestinians passed through these checkpoints daily in order to work in Israel, where jobs were more available and higher paying.
The banning of movement for those workers – indeed, of almost all movement between the West Bank and Israel – would have been unimaginable even a month ago, and likely to intensify tensions between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli leadership. Last week, it was jointly coordinated. Palestinian Prime Minister Dr Mohhamed Eshtaya announced that there would be exceptions for people who provide for their families by working in Israel, and who would be allowed to stay in Israel and continue working if they had a place to sleep in. Israel usually has a strict policy regarding Palestinian workers, yet it allowed day workers to enter it for this period of time, since construction workers are considered essential.
Inside the West bank, over 3,900 Palestinians are currently under quarantine, mostly in Bethlehem, the first and thus far main point of Covid-19 spreading in the West Bank. A number of other Palestinian cities and towns have declared a self-imposed curfew, after a coronavirus patient was discovered in them.
Some Palestinians have said in interviews that they take the closure and curfew in stride. Ironically, they say that the long years of curfews imposed by Israeli military have prepared them for times like this.
Palestinian residents are well trained in functioning under curfew, however, Israeli citizens have had a more difficult time adjusting to this new reality, which includes the loss of freedom of movement, the mass shutdown of small businesses, and uncertainty about what steps might be taken next. The atmosphere of growing hysteria isn’t calmed by the daily press conferences of interim Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. These televised speeches include mostly a summary of what steps were taken so far, but are rather vague regarding what other steps may be taken next.
This policy of ambiguity is felt even more strongly in the Palestinian refugee camps, neighbourhoods and villages in east Jerusalem and its surroundings. On Friday night, there were reports in Palestinian media of a potential closing-off of the Shoefat refugee camp, in north-east Jerusalem. These reports followed several days of similar rumours in Israeli media, some of which mentioned the possibility of a general curfew of East Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, two first Covid-19 patients were diagnosed in the Gaza strips. The densely-populated area is home to nearly 2 million Palestinians, and a contagious virus could quickly become a catastrophe on a massive scale. The IDF has imposed a blockade of Gaza since 2006, when Hamas, a terrorist group, won the local Palestinian elections and took control of the strip after a period of violent strife with the PA.
The blockade, which enabled Israeli authorities to closely monitor the Gaza strip in order to prevent attacks against Israeli, has also resulted in a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale. Almost half of the Palestinians in the Gaza strip are unemployed, and most civil services are barely functional.
Still, after several weeks on the verge of a violent escalation between Israel and Palestinian factions in the Gaza strip, the skies are suddenly still. As the smell of rockets and aircraft fuel faded away, coronavirus tests entered the strip, under close supervision by the IDF. Everyone is focusing on the new enemy, which you are more likely to be alerted to by a sneeze than by a wailing siren or a roaring engine.
One unresolved issue, however, remains. Israel holds approximately 5,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli Jails. While Israel has convicted most of them with acts of terror, the PA sees them as political prisoners, who are part of the struggle against the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
In a rare moment of unity, both PA Prime Minister Eshtaya and Hamas spokesperson released similar messages regarding Palestinian prisoners. The Palestinians see Israel as responsible for their fate, both said, and demanded their immediate release. While releasing these prisoners is unthinkable on the Israeli side, the potential spread of the coronavirus within prison walls would be hard to contain once started, and any deaths would re-escalate tensions rapidly.
The cooperation between the Israeli government and the PA are a direct result of the realization that a pandemic spreading in such a dense area would be a problem for both sides, regardless of whether or not they acknowledge the other’s right to live in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. And while cooperation seems to function for now, it’s a matter of time before challenging dilemmas rise and threaten this delicate balance, so rarely achieved between the Jews and Palestinians.
Featured photo: Jerusalem at Coronavirus time, photography by Yoav Loeff