The coronavirus has reduced some violence and forged some limited cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian authorities. But the trend lines for continued conflict are predictably grim. Indeed, the second-order consequences of the pandemic could lead to greater tensions if the healthcare situation in the Gaza Strip deteriorates, if the capacity of the Palestinian Authority (PA) is challenged, and if the emerging unity government in Israel decides to move ahead with plans to officially annex parts of the West Bank. More than likely, when the pandemic eases and disappears, so will any limited Israeli-Palestinian cooperation.
Less Violence, More Cooperation
Is the pandemic making peace between Israelis and Palestinians? Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called PA President Mahmoud Abbas to talk about fighting the pandemic. Israeli and Palestinian officials have confirmed the existence of a joint operations center and mechanisms to share information and coordinate actions. And Israel delivered limited numbers of test kits to Gaza and the West Bank, held training for Palestinian medical workers, and promised to supply more assistance as needed.
Still, the two sides have cooperated on joint public health initiatives in the past. And although the health crisis they now confront is unprecedented, their political and economic dynamics—driven by the relationship of occupier and occupied—leave a very narrow, restricted basis for meaningful and sustained cooperation to manage this crisis, let alone create post-pandemic openings that might ameliorate their broader conflict.
A Nightmare Scenario for Gaza
Even before the first coronavirus cases appeared in Gaza’s largely refugee population on March 21, the enclave had been declared unfit for human habitation. With its poverty, close quarters, poor sanitation, limited access to clean water and electricity, and a decimated healthcare system, it presents perfect conditions for the virus to spread. Years of living under an Israeli blockade and a permit regime are primarily responsible for Gaza’s 43 percent unemployment rate and the majority of the population living below the poverty line. Those Gazans lucky enough to have been employed before the pandemic are now at home in large, multigenerational households where the elders are at increased risk of exposure and infection. Half a million children are also idling, the majority without an internet connection for online learning. Domestic violence, already prevalent in Gaza, is expected to rise.
The Israeli military and Hamas have been engaging in some degree of coordination to stem the spread of the virus, but long-standing Israeli restrictions that prevent certain supplies and equipment from entering the enclave impede the delivery of healthcare. Israel is now conditioning delivery of ventilators to Gaza on the release of two prisoners held by Hamas.
In the short term, it is in the interest of both Hamas and Israel to come to some form of accommodation. Neither one has an appetite for renewed violent conflict in the midst of a pandemic. That said, other militant groups might well try to take advantage of the lull. Israel’s relatively muted response to rocket fire from Gaza last week indicates that, at least for now, it has no interest in being pulled into a conflagration.
PA Capacities: Can It Survive the Pandemic?
The PA has seen a rise in public approval as a result of its efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus in the West Bank. This has given it some respite from mounting pressure from public sector employees who have seen repeated delays and reductions to their salary and benefits following Israel’s withholding of tax revenues collected on behalf of the PA. The PA’s announcement that its revenue will be halved as a result of the pandemic, however, calls into question whether it can survive beyond the next few months. Qatar and Kuwait have pledged funds to assist the PA, but this kind of regular support from the Gulf is likely to dwindle over time as the world heads into an economic recession. The biggest threat Palestinians face now is how to prevent a surge of cases with the reintegration into the West Bank of 35,000 to 45,000 Palestinian laborers who had temporary permission to live in Israel during the pandemic—some of whom are from virus-plagued worksites. Tanzim, the militia of the ruling party, Fatah, is now helping PA security forces enforce quarantine orders, perhaps signaling PA fears that the security situation in the West Bank might soon deteriorate.
Annexation in the Time of Coronavirus
An Israeli health ministry official recently noted that Israel might have to “medically annex” the West Bank—indicating that Israel and the West Bank were one geographic unit and that greater coordination was needed to fight the virus. Convinced that U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace plan has all but endorsed Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank and with U.S. elections approaching, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will likely want to extend Israeli sovereignty for more than just medical expediency. As Netanyahu and opposition alliance leader and Knesset Speaker Benny Gantz negotiate the terms of a rotational emergency government, the questions of what and when to annex are very much on the table. Emergency government or not, settlement expansion continues. And last week, Israel prevented Palestinians from erecting two tents as makeshift field clinics to treat virus patients.
A political disaster to match the pandemic—uncontrolled spread of the virus in Gaza, the PA’s fundamental weakening, some provocative Israeli move on annexation, or a resumption of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—cannot be ruled out. Even short of that, the pandemic’s consequences almost certainly will weaken both the capacity and motivation of the parties to address it. Already immunocompromised by years of failure and weakened by Trump’s and Netanyahu’s hostility, the two-state solution may struggle to survive the virus. And Israelis and Palestinians will remain trapped in the same conflict-ridden reality that existed before the coronavirus began its cruel and merciless spread, with fewer options for resolving it.