When the coronavirus pandemic first erupted, something happened that initially seemed to be marginal and failed to attract any particular attention: Israel announced that it would permit large numbers of Palestinian laborers from the territories to remain overnight within Israel proper, so they could continue to work at their jobs in the country.
Boom. Massive numbers of Palestinian terrorists would be allowed to sleep overnight in Israel – and in the middle of an epidemic, no less? Where is the Shin Bet security service when you need it? Where are the Israel Police and other security agencies? Who will protect us from these masses of ticking, human time bombs who will be sleeping beneath our children’s bedrooms and our own?
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We’ve had a deathly fear of these people for two decades. For 20 years, we’ve been warned about them. Since the second intifada, we haven’t allowed them to remain in Israel overnight. But all of a sudden, during the coronavirus pandemic, the threat is gone, as if it had never been an issue, along with the ban on overnight stays.
All of a sudden, the people doing all the construction in this country are also allowed to sleep here. It’s happened, and the sky hasn’t fallen. But you can still count on Israel, of course: When the pandemic is over, the Palestinians building this country will probably once again have to navigate between all the checkpoints in the middle of the night.
The virus has spread in recent weeks in the area between the River Jordan and the sea, and Israel and the Palestinian Authority have come together under a heavy cloak of fear and distress. This has been the quietest time for years in the region.
Israel’s borders, urban centers and villages, and the refugee camps and cities of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip – all have been calm to an extent not seen here in a long while. An invisible hand has held its fire, its incendiary balloons and rockets, as well as its detentions and assassinations. During the pandemic there has been a pause in hostilities, one that still continues. This will probably pass as if it never was – but maybe not.
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At the same time, Arab doctors, nurses, pharmacists, hospital orderlies and other support staff have been on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus. The mass media, which never noticed them or their people, and which in normal times never took them into consideration, is suddenly according them esteem and respect. All of a sudden, they are human beings, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
Arab epidemiologists or hospital directors may still not be considered expert enough to appear in the media and to speak about their area of expertise, but suddenly there are Arabs on the front page of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily – and they’re not terrorists. Who would have believed it?
Among those lighting the torch during on the eve of Independence Day, the pinnacle of official Zionist ceremonies, there was Arab representation this year – albeit not, of course, for the first time. But this year it was someone who wasn’t a “good Arab” or a collaborator, but a medical professional accorded recognition for his diligence, not his “loyalty.”
There was also another surprising development, the impact of which is still difficult to assess: For the first time in their history, Israelis have begun to feel Palestinian. Not really, but nevertheless, Israelis have now also been subject to lockdowns and curfews, checkpoints and joblessness to a frightful extent. They know that the situation is temporary and that the restrictive measures are justified, but nonetheless, Israelis have gotten a taste of a small occupation.
Will this help them feel a smidgen of identification with Palestinian victims? Will Israelis realize that what they have experienced for two months under deluxe circumstances is what the Palestinians have been experiencing for over 50 years under incredibly abusive and humiliating conditions? It’s doubtful, but maybe they will.
Will a spring of hope bloom fully? It’s not too likely. But the coronavirus has moved us an inch closer toward a one-state solution, which appears to be the only solution left. One small step for man, one very small leap for mankind. A very small, fragile and reversible leap.
The Arabs of Israel have been portrayed for a moment as people like us – facing the same danger, dealing with it as we are, and fortunately not spreading it more than we are, as some people clearly would have hoped. Terrorism in the territories is dead. Dealing with the two sides of the border has become a civilian matter, as in a normal country, with even dribbles of medical assistance here and there.
Gaza has remained imprisoned. West Bank settlers, who don’t pass up a chance to engage in violence, even during an epidemic, have been assaulting and destroying and stealing more than they usually do. And it has not occurred to Israel to make a gesture, such as a prisoner release. But still, there's something in the air that engenders hope.
Will Israelis draw conclusions from these small developments? Have the seeds been planted for a crucial change in outlook – the likes of which has never occurred before – that would lead Israelis to understand that the Palestinians are human beings just like us, with the same dreams and the same rights?
There are no grounds for high expectations. The agents of war and hatred, nationalism and racism, remain just as powerful as ever. But still, two peoples, one epidemic, one state. For a moment, the only country in which two peoples live under three regimes has stopped its crazy pursuit of weapons and blood.
Even if a much greater disaster is needed to bring about change, we may still be consoled by the small disaster that may bring an even smaller, but probably fleeting, change. But we should be grateful for whatever we can get.