In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel and the occupied territories were marked by some cooperation between the relevant Israeli and Palestinian authorities aimed at stemming the spread of the virus. But since then, conditions have deteriorated substantially. As expected, the common purpose of fending off the virus has neither resulted in a political breakthrough between occupier and occupied nor redirected new energy toward peacemaking.
From Low-Grade Cooperation to Chaos in the Occupied Palestinian Territories
The virus is now spreading wildly inside Gaza and the West Bank, including in East Jerusalem where the Palestinian Authority (PA) counts Palestinian cases as a part of its numbers. Throughout the Palestinian territories, the number of infections climbed from a few cases a day in April to around 2,500 cases a day or more by late November and early December. How did the community trust and cooperation with Israel that characterized the Palestinian territories’ early and effective pandemic response break down and allow the virus to start spreading widely through Palestinian communities as it is now?
The situation began to unravel in May, when the PA ended all coordination with the Israeli Civil Administration in the occupied territories after the new Israeli government was sworn in under a coalition agreement that promised to move forward on annexing parts of the West Bank. Israel reacted by severely limiting PA security forces in the West Bank, including forces tasked with enforcing virus prevention measures. Though a lack of coordination with Israel and the loss of customs revenue streams certainly reduced Palestinian capacities to mitigate the spread of the virus, a surge of cases in the territories may have been only a matter of time.
The end of Palestinian-Israeli coordination also complicated efforts to bring medical supplies and equipment into the occupied territories, which delayed coronavirus testing and COVID-19 treatment. To make matters worse, the PA’s revenue was cut drastically by pandemic response measures and its refusal in June to accept any of the customs revenue Israel collects on its behalf, a response to Israel’s threat of annexation. Because of this, the PA was left dependent on Palestine’s private sector, its diaspora community, and donor contributions. Over time, support for the PA among Palestinian civil society for the PA’s effective early handling of the pandemic turned to recriminations as public sector employees, including police officers and healthcare workers on the front lines of the pandemic, did not receive their full salaries. Though the Israeli government eventually transferred the withheld revenue back to the PA in early December (Israeli deductions are promised on future disbursements), the damage to an effective pandemic response and to public goodwill for the PA cannot so easily be undone.
In Gaza, Hamas’s effective early management of the pandemic gave the group renewed legitimacy and purpose among the Palestinian population and, to a degree, the international community. Israel, with support from the United States, marginalized the PA and reinforced its policy of keeping Gaza a separate political entity. When the PA rejected aid shipments from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) meant for pandemic relief because the shipments came via Tel Aviv and without PA coordination or knowledge, the UAE and Israel were only too happy to have these supplies sent to Gaza. Likewise, while desperately needed budgetary support from Saudi Arabia to the PA was cut off in the spring at the urging of the U.S. government, Israel has allowed around $30 million in Qatari cash payments to be made to families in Gaza. The Arab Gulf countries’ flirtations with (and in some cases commitments to) normalized diplomatic ties with Israel and other political jockeying to garner U.S. favor not only hurt the PA’s efforts to combat the virus but also undermined any possibility of Palestinian national reconciliation.
From Confronting the Virus to Curbing Protests and Courting Normalization
Meanwhile, after receiving early kudos for his handling of the initial coronavirus outbreak in March, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu struggled to find the right strategy later on, as Israel opened up schools and the economy too quickly and as the virus spread particularly among its Orthodox and Arab communities. A second lockdown imposed in September managed to curtail the rise in cases from 8,000 a day to under 1,500 a day. But this lockdown has taken a severe toll on the economy, the morale of the country, and the prime minister’s political fortunes.
Netanyahu’s political travails clearly contributed to the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. His need to placate the Orthodox community and their representatives in his governing coalition led to lax enforcement of coronavirus-related restrictions. And the now daily protests outside the prime minister’s residence have created an image of a lack of confidence in almost every aspect of Netanyahu’s leadership.
The breakup of the unity government led by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz is almost certain by year’s end, or else by early next year. The looming evidentiary portion of the prime minister’s trial has reinforced his determination to form a narrow, right-wing government that could legislate deferral of his trial or undermine it. All that remains to be determined is the date of the election. Gantz would prefer the elections be held as soon as possible; Netanyahu, realizing his handling of the pandemic and the economy has hurt him with voters, seeks to delay them ideally until June, in anticipation of a vaccine.
The only pieces of good news for Netanyahu were the Emirati and Bahraini normalization agreements, which had a much more profound impact on the Israeli-Palestinian equation than anything coronavirus-related.
The pandemic and its economic aftermath will lock Palestinians in a struggle for the survival of their national movement without the regional support and donor assistance that they have come to rely on during other turbulent times. And Israelis will be preoccupied with internal matters and regional concerns that will keep Palestinians and their relationship to Israel on the backburner. Stagnation on the peacemaking front, however, does not mean a static political situation on the ground; a single spark—one more home demolition or one more attack at a security checkpoint—or another unexpected event is all that may be needed to place Palestine and Israel back on top of everyone’s priority list.