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With Economic, Political Woes, West Bank's Second Coronavirus Wave Might Spin Out of Control

Top Israeli officials fear the ramifications of a halt in cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, the fallout from Israel's annexation plans and a growing mistrust in Palestinian leadership

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Relatives pray before the body of a Palestinian man who has died after contracting the coronavirus, Hebron, July 5, 2020.
Relatives pray before the body of a Palestinian man who has died after contracting the coronavirus, Hebron, July 5, 2020. Credit: MUSSA ISSA QAWASMA/Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Israel isn’t the only in the region now dealing with a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, which may well prove more widespread than its predecessor. The Palestinian Authority has also seen a significant rise in the incidence of illness and death in recent weeks that merely exacerbates its already troubling economic and diplomatic woes.

In light of the spread of the coronavirus, the deteriorating economic situation and the public’s growing disappointment in the PA’s performance, senior Israeli government and defense officials are increasingly worried that the PA will lose control of the situation in the West Bank.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas isn’t facing a criminal trial that could end his political career the way that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is. But aside from that, his position is no less shaky than his Israeli counterpart.

A month ago, the number of active coronavirus cases in the West Bank stood at 340. On Tuesday, it crossed the 7,000 mark. Around 350 new patients are diagnosed each day, and about 60 Palestinians have died of the coronavirus over the last month.

The Hebron area has seen in particular a steep rise in the number of patients, apparently due in part to the spread of the virus among Israeli Bedouin in the Negev. West Bank hospitals are already close to the limits of their capacity, especially when it comes to ventilators and intensive care beds.

Doctors from the Palestinian Health Ministry take blood samples from a person suspected of being infected with the coronavirus in Hebron, West Bank, July 15, 2020.
Doctors from the Palestinian Health Ministry take blood samples from a person suspected of being infected with the coronavirus in Hebron, West Bank, July 15, 2020. Credit: AFP

The first wave of the virus barely touched the West Bank, ending with a few hundred patients and a handful of deaths. The PA enforced rigid restrictions, in coordination with Israel, including lockdowns and local curfews. It also monitored the movement of workers between Israel and the West Bank fairly closely, to prevent illness from being brought into its territory.

These steps worked well, until Israel’s second wave erupted. On June 17, about a month after incidence of the virus began rising in Israel, the West Bank also recorded a steep rise (41 patients), and it has gotten much worse since then.

Throughout this period, the Gaza Strip remained virtually free of the coronavirus. The almost complete blockade on Gaza, whose only entry point is the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, allowed the Hamas government to quarantine the few people who entered its territory and thereby prevented the virus from spreading.

The PA’s problem is that its current health crisis coincided with a serious diplomatic clash with Israel.

Abbas officially severed ties with the United States following President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 and rejected the pro-Israel, so-called “deal of the century” that Trump unveiled in January. In May, when Netanyahu began promoting plans to annex parts of the West Bank as part of his coalition agreement with the Kahol Lavan party, Abbas announced that he would also be severing both security coordination and civilian ties with Israel.

Contrary to similar announcements in the past, he turned out to be serious this time. The Palestinians stopped coordinating the treatment of patients with Israel, stopped accepting mail and packages through Israeli ports and severed coordination with the Israel Defense Forces as well as with the Shin Bet security service. Palestinian officers even blocked their Israeli colleagues on their cellphones so the Israelis couldn’t send them WhatsApp messages.

When July 1, the date Netanyahu had set for starting the annexation, passed, it became clear that the serious economic and health consequences of the coronavirus crisis were making it impossible for him to advance his plans for the time being. But Abbas has insisted on continuing the rift, which has not only undermined security coordination, but also the battle against the coronavirus.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, the West Bank, June 15, 2020.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh in Ramallah, the West Bank, June 15, 2020.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

In the first wave, both the PA and Hamas relied on assistance and medical guidance from Israel. In the second wave, a shipment of 100,000 coronavirus test kits intended for the PA is currently stuck at Ben-Gurion Airport because the PA refuses to coordinate its pickup.

The PA has also abandoned supervision of its border crossings with Israel, so it has no control over who is entering and leaving and no way to find out if any of them have the coronavirus. Jordan is worried as well, because the PA isn’t supervising passenger traffic from the West Bank to Amman.

Ramallah has sought to outsource some of these jobs, like extracting that shipment from Ben-Gurion Airport, to the United Nations, but to no avail so far. And all this is exacerbated by the PA’s refusal to accept the tax revenues Israel collects on its behalf, which has forced it to make huge cuts in its budget and its civil servants’ salaries.

On top of the spread of the virus and the severance of ties with Israel is the fact that West Bank Palestinians increasingly lack confidence in their leaders’ decisions. They are skeptical of the PA’s judgment, worried about their livelihoods and openly dispute the latest restrictions that have been imposed in a way that may sound familiar to Israeli readers. Over the last few days, there have been a growing number of disturbances of the peace in protest against the PA’s handling of the crisis.

This week, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry met with Abbas in Ramallah. The visit, whose talking points seem to have been coordinated with Israel, was meant to try to convince Abbas to climb down from the ledge. If Netanyahu has abandoned annexation for now, what’s the point of Abbas entrenching himself in positions that were initially meant to discourage Netanyahu from advancing his plan?

The Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported that Abbas told Shoukry he is willing to resume negotiations with Israel. In the same breath, he sought Egypt’s help in thwarting annexation. But for now, he still seems to be insisting on continuing the rift.

That’s a problem for the PA, which may well face a higher incidence of illness and death because of it, but it’s also a problem for Israel. There’s no real separation between Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank, or between either of those groups and the population inside Israel.

The coronavirus doesn’t stop at the 1967 lines. And without coordination between the parties, it will be hard to put out the fire that has been lit on both sides of those lines.

Aiming for herd immunity

A group of respected scientists published an op-ed Monday in Haaretz in Hebrew that has made a lot of waves. The four scientists – Prof. Michael Levitt, winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry; Prof. Eyal Shahar; Prof. Ehud Qimron; and Dr. Uri Gavish – disagree with the government’s current policy for fighting the coronavirus, and in fact with the strict lockdowns imposed by most Western countries in recent months.

The authors of this op-ed presented a more reasoned theory than Prof. Yoram Lass’ ongoing spectacle, which many people think borders on medical buffoonery. Their conclusions aren’t based on independent research, but on gathering and analyzing the available data.

Experts in Israel and other Western countries have poured gallons of boiling oil on Sweden for its refusal to subject its residents to a lockdown. This policy resulted in much higher death rates than what the other Scandinavian countries recorded.

But the four scientists compared Sweden’s incidence of illness and death to those of Britain, which belatedly imposed a total lockdown, and aren’t convinced that the British made the wiser choice. They pointed out that Sweden recently recorded a steep decline in its incidences of illness and death, even without imposing a lockdown.

People enjoy the sun at an outdoor restaurant, despite the continuing spread of the coronavirus, in Stockholm, Sweden, March 26, 2020.
People enjoy the sun at an outdoor restaurant, despite the continuing spread of the coronavirus, in Stockholm, Sweden, March 26, 2020.Credit: TT NEWS AGENCY/ REUTERS

They cited a theory, recently repeated in several well-regarded scientific journals, that the population has developed immunity to the coronavirus as a result of exposure to previous viruses, and that this immunity could extend to half the population or even more.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Levitt added another hypothesis, according to which the coronavirus may have a kind of “saturation point,” an upper boundary, in which it stops spreading once 10 to 20 percent of the population has been infected. He noted that cities dealt a harsh blow by the virus in the first wave, like London and New York, so far haven’t experienced a second wave, despite the removal of lockdown restrictions (though in Barcelona, another hotbed of the virus, a renewed rise in incidence of the illness was recorded this week).

Whether or not his arguments are correct will be tested by the incidence of the virus in the coming months. In any event, what he describes is a very low threshold compared to “herd immunity,” which generally requires around 60 percent of the population to be infected.

The scientists’ most controversial proposal was that, based on their theory, Israel should adopt a strategy of attaining herd immunity. They think that letting younger Israelis get infected by the virus over the summer would bring the virus close to its upper boundary, while the cost to the country in lives would be relatively limited. Israel is starting off in a much better position than Sweden, they argue, thanks to its comparatively younger population.

In reality, it’s hard to see how the government could adopt such a policy, given Israelis’ high sensitivity to loss of life (which is also evident in disputes over military operations). Moreover, it would carry a dual risk.

First, the scientists’ calculations could prove wrong and the virus could get out of control, resulting in a steep rise in the death rate, including among younger people with preexisting conditions. Second, as many recent studies have shown, even people with mild cases of the virus are likely to suffer serious health problems for quite some time.

The plan that the Finance Ministry proposed in May flirted cautiously with the idea of herd immunity. But other experts, including the panel advising the National Security Council, vehemently rejected this idea, warning of its dangerous consequences.

Nevertheless, this article should at least spark public and professional discussion of its proposals. There may be room for a few other options in the space between the people who want to lock us all in our homes for months on end and Lass and the disciples of the “it’s only a flu” approach.

Unfortunately, some of the out-of-control responses on social media to Levitt (who became famous against his will in March when he predicted fewer than 10 deaths from the virus in Israel) show that the conversation in Israel has become a dialogue of the deaf, in which both sides embrace only extreme and devisive positions.

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