Israelis and Palestinians Work Together to Fight COVID-19
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In mid-March, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin phoned Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbass to discuss the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The world is dealing with a crisis that does not distinguish between people or where they live,” Rivlin told Abbas, according to press reports, adding, “The cooperation between us is vital to ensure the health of both Israelis and Palestinians…our ability to work together in times of crisis is also testament to our ability to work together in the future for the good of us all.”
Indeed, medical cooperation regarding the COVID-19 virus between the Israeli and Palestinian medical professionals has been taking place since mid-February, according to Elhanan Bar On, director of the Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response at Sheba Medical Center.
The Sheba Medical Center was one of the first Israeli hospitals to set up a dedicated unit for the care of coronavirus patients, and, by early February, they had “gained quite a lot of expertise that we wanted to share,” Bar On said. Speaking at a Jerusalem Press Club briefing, he noted that these meetings are building on professional relationships between Israelis and Palestinians that date back at least two decades, “so we have a basis on which to start.”
The Sheba team, Bar On explained, traveled “to Jericho, to see their facilities and we provided their professionals with a long session, sharing what we know and listening to what they need, and how to adapt what we do at Sheba, where we have high-tech equipment that they do not have. We followed up with visits in East Jerusalem, and met in Israel with groups from the Gaza Strip. We are also making ourselves available through the phone.”
According to Bar-On, there is a shortage of equipment and personnel in the West Bank and Gaza, but that there is no need for Israeli medical teams to treat Palestinian coronavirus patients, whether in Israel or the territories. “The medical personnel, in both Gaza and the West Bank, are very well trained and are fully capable of taking care of their patients.”
Working with the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the organization responsible for the implementation of civilian policy and security coordination, Israel has also provided Palestinian health-care professionals with additional training in Israeli hospitals, and Israeli labs are analyzing Palestinian COVID-19 diagnostic tests. The Israeli health ministry has also donated several thousand testing kits and Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to the West Bank and Gaza.
Israel is also facilitating additional aid through organizations such as the World Health Organization and Physicians Without Borders.
“Viruses and epidemics don’t stop at the border, and the spread of a dangerous virus in Judea and Samaria could endanger the health of Israeli citizens,” Dr. Dalia Basa, health coordinator for the military administration, said in a statement, using the biblical terms for the West Bank. Helping the PA fight the virus “is both in the interest of Israel and of the highest humanitarian significance.”
On the Palestinian side, Unipal 2000, a Gaza clothing manufacturer based in Gaza City, has converted its factories to produce surgical masks and other protective gear, which they are selling to Israel. Nabil Bawab, a fluent Hebrew speaker, told The Times of Israel in a phone interview that Unipal 2000 has already signed contracts with Israeli business partners to provide one million masks and 50,000 protective suits by the end of April, the company was also in talks with local and international medical organizations in Gaza to sell them products too. He said his company was selling masks to Israel for NIS 5 ($1.4) each and every protective suit for NIS 12 ($3.35).
Indeed, according to The Times of Israel, the cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians to contain the virus and to treat patients has earned praise from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. Speaking at a press conference announcing the launch of the “COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan,” he noted, “I see…different parties to a conflict cooperating in order to respond to this dramatic situation,” he said. “To give an example, in fighting COVID-19, the Palestinian Authority and Israel have been able to work together, even if we know the extreme division that exists politically between the two.”
Similarly, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov briefed members of the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the European Union, the United States and Russia) about the effects of the coronavirus on the already tense situation in Gaza. In his remarks, he stressed the “excellent coordination and cooperation that has been established with all Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors,” according to a readout of the briefing.
Although cooperation on the part of the Palestinian Authority often comes under severe criticism from the supporters of BDS, Noa Schusterman, Research Assistant to the Director General of Institute for National Security Studies and its Israel-Palestinian Research Program Coordinator, said that the Palestinian Authority has been completely open about its cooperation with Israel. “The Palestinian Authority knows that their public trusts the Israeli capabilities more than they trust the Palestinian Authorities in matters like these. In fact, this cooperation boosts the position of the PA in the eyes of its own people.”
In this vein, the PA has also acknowledged that Israel had transferred $25 million in previously withheld tax money, after PA Finance Minister Shukri Bishara and his Israeli counterpart, Moshe Kahlon, met, according to the PA Finance Ministry, to discuss the economic impact of the coronavirus on Israel and the Palestinians.
However, not all has gone smoothly. On March 17, Defense Minister Naftali Bennet, concerned about both the Israeli and the Palestinian economies, decided that the approximately 70,000 Palestinian workers and merchants who already have permits would be allowed into Israel on March 18, but would have to stay within Israel, without going back home, for at least one month or longer (depending on the medical situation in Israel and the territories). Israeli employers were instructed to arrange accommodations for their employees.
However, as Mysanna Morany, an attorney for Adalah, an Arab legal rights group, tells Moment, few Israeli employers did so, and even fewer provided adequate lodging. Some were even forced to sleep in the fields, while others were hastily crowded into shacks or warehouses. “These conditions are not appropriate at any time,” Morany said, “and certainly not during this crisis time, when people are supposed to maintain high levels of hygiene and a distance of six feet from each other.”
And Haaretz Daily reported that a Palestinian man who was working in Israel without a permit and displaying symptoms of the coronavirus was abandoned by police at a West Bank checkpoint with a fever on Monday, without any Palestinian authorities being notified.
Ibrahim Milhem, the PA government spokesman, said that the police “dumped him in the middle of the road while he was experiencing pain…They welcome us as healthy people and then throw us in the middle of the road as sick people. This is in contravention of human rights.”
And according to the mass-daily, Israel Hayom, a video of an IDF soldier spitting on the ground in the Hebron area sparked a wave of rumors that the army is intentionally infecting Palestinians. Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh is reported to have said: “Some of the soldiers are trying to spread viruses on car windshields and this stems from racist education and being taught to hate. These are people who wish for the deaths of others.”
But most Palestinian officials and medical personnel continue to praise the cooperation. “Whenever there’s a crisis that affects the people’s health, collaboration should be possible,” Dr. Zahar Nazzal, an epidemiologist at An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nabus, told the Christian Science Monitor, “It doesn’t mean you put everything behind you, or that you agree with everything that’s happening on the ground,” but the cooperation makes sense.
And speaking on Israeli television, Dr. Walid Nammour, CEO of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, concluded, “If this tiny virus, that we can’t even see, can be so destructive, we must learn to cooperate together now and in the future.”