For all the suffering it has caused, Covid-19 has also prompted widespread expressions of humanity. A virus without respect for borders, and which kills rich and poor alike, in some ways reveals the interconnectivity of all people. This has been the narrative even in the Middle East, with Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israeli government officials coordinating closely in their response to the pandemic, evoking some praise for this as a moment of coming-together.
The logic behind the approach isn’t complicated. The stretch of territory from Jordan River to Mediterranean Sea, claimed as the homeland of both Palestine and Israel, is at its narrowest point barely fifty miles wide. Within the stretch of land are 8.7 million Israeli citizens, nearly 2 million of which are of Palestinian heritage. A further 1.9 million Palestinians live in the blockaded Gaza Strip, while 2.7 million Palestinians are in the West Bank, with the illegal settlements of almost 800,000 Israeli settlers dotted amongst them and in occupied East Jerusalem.
The virus, true enough, and unlike the politics, military checkpoints and concrete walls, does not discriminate; it exposes the inescapably mutual interdependence of communities. Whatever the strength of the Israeli pharmaceutical industry, or Israel’s modern hospitals, if Covid-19 takes root in Palestine, Israeli lives will also be on the line. And in this context the consequences of Israel’s 70-year military occupation of Palestinians on healthcare outcomes becomes stark.
More cut-off as it was from the supply chains that carried Covid-19, Palestine has received the same dividend of time enjoyed by more isolated, poorer or blockaded states. That dividend is thought to have expired with the arrival of a group of infected Greek tourists into Bethlehem, and people returning from Pakistan into Gaza, via the crossing with Egypt.
With the head-start now over, both the West Bank and Gaza face the same predicament as poorer countries around the world; depleted healthcare resources, and less economic reserves, with which to withstand the pandemic should it hit full force. There are only 256 ventilators in the West Bank and 87 in Gaza to serve millions of Palestinian people.
Recognising this, the PA in the West Bank has closed tourist sites, and Hamas in Gaza shut mosques and other community sites. China continued its pandemic diplomacy with a consignment of testing kits to Palestine, while Kuwait has promised funds, but the virus will test the resilience with which the Palestinians already survive under military occupation.
Upwards of 50,000 Palestinians travel each day from the West Bank to work in Israel, particularly in construction, and the sector – as it has elsewhere – ploughs-on regardless of the virus. Quick to adopt measures of isolation, the PA has not interfered with employment, but prohibited daily coming-and-goings with the higher infection rate of the Israeli territory.
As a result of restrictions on movement, bosses in Israel were expected to provide accommodation, but this itself has led to workers sleeping at crowded construction sites, or packed into small rooms through which the virus will doubtless eventually rip. Those Palestinian workers who withdrew immediately, or were since spooked by the conditions in which they were expected to spend months inside Israel, have been left in the grey area of what responsibility Israeli employers will take for furlough or social security payments.
Any concern for low-income Palestinians will have already been surpassed by the rapid movement of the virus through Israel. The speed at which it spread led to a botched U-turn on the policy of Palestinian workers, and their containment inside Israel, so that many sought to return to the West Bank in a rush which likely helped to spread the disease.
Israel itself is already beginning to struggle with the pandemic. Many in its media are blaming the obstinacy of its orthodox Charedi community, who were told by rabbis to rely on the Torah and faith for protection. The majority of Israeli intensive care beds are now occupied by Charedis, much to the annoyance of secular Israelis who have observed isolation measures more closely.
Any increase in the overall death rate as a result of actions from the Charedi community will put new strain on the country’s religious-secular divide. Many were already furious at Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of religious figures to his cabinet.
Israeli citizens of Palestinian heritage, meanwhile, living in areas that receive lower state investment and have depleted amenities, are a constant reminder of Israel’s two-tier society. There is also anger at the way health warnings and serious updates have been excluded from Israel’s Arabic TV channels.
Despite the upheaval of Covid-19, it would be wrong to assume that it wasn’t in many ways business as usual for Palestinians living under military occupation. March saw the destruction of a Palestinian farmer’s olive grove, with four hundred newly-planted trees uprooted by the Israeli army at Wad Fukin near Bethlehem.
There was widespread horror as, in the midst of global solidarity against the pandemic, an Israeli demolition team destroyed or confiscated materials with which the PA were constructing an emergency clinic in the northern Jordan Valley at the village of Ibziq.
Some recognition exists that the extent of the humanitarian crisis already underway in Gaza, and the potentially unmanageable conditions of the pandemic, means Palestinians will need to be treated in hospitals in Israel. Those inside the blockaded territory are often in dire conditions after Israeli air strikes left infrastructure in ruins and electricity intermittent.
Whatever the necessity of such aid, if it comes, it will still bear familiar hallmarks of a structure whereby Israelis sometimes dispense performative acts of emergency care to Palestinians while systematically and deliberately destroying the conditions and structures for Palestinian autonomy and state capacity.
In a similar mark of charity, Israel is to release a proportion of funds it regularly deducts from Palestinian tax receipts on imports into Israel and in-turn Palestinian territory. The penalty is imposed in proportion to amounts given by the PA to support political prisoners, combatants and their families – which Israel refuses to countenance.
Using this justification, billions have been unilaterally seized from the Palestinians over the years, placing further strain on Palestinian self-reliance. That Israel is refusing to release Palestinian prisoners, many of them elderly, is also a continuing cause for concern. Israel’s regional rivals, including Iran, have already taken the basic humanitarian step of releasing many political prisoners into house arrest.
It is important to recognise that high-level Israel-Palestinian security coordination is by no means a new phenomenon. Although the PA under Mahmoud Abbas recently rejected Donald Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ peace plan, Palestinian activists have standing misgivings over clientelism in the relationship of their leaders and Israel, with the PA frequently coming down hard on Palestinian activists.
Resentment of this perceived closeness was a key element behind the electoral success of Hamas in Gaza. Even there, however, and despite frequent fighting and intense mutual dislike, Hamas and Israel know what it is to coordinate. It was this potential for cooperation that helped Hamas to quickly snuff-out the threat of ISIS within Gaza, and allows it to keep a lid on more militant Gaza factions such as Islamic Jihad.
While the narrative of Palestinians and Israelis tends to capture most public attention, Egypt is also party to this coordination, including those around Covid-19. If the pandemic takes root in Gaza, it will drive home the reality that the Gaza blockade is a mutually enforced by Israel alongside key US-ally, Abdel el-Sisi – the Egyptian President Donald Trump referred to as his “favourite dictator.”
As well as evidently counter-productive acts like the demolition of the Ibziq clinic, the pandemic itself has allowed Benjamin Netanyahu, with the speaker of Knesset in support, to stage a legislative coup in the aftermath of another round of hung elections.
The cover of the pandemic has kept alight his burning ambition to be the man who annexes the West Bank while Donald Trump remains in the White House to give his blessing.
Meanwhile, the state has teamed-up with the Israeli surveillance company, NSO, implicated in Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and is now aiming to track all Israelis with a ‘contagion score.’
It will be further tragedy if what pans out in the coming weeks and months is heralded as a unifying force for good, but in reality is used to accelerate some of the worst trends in historical injustices against the Palestinians.