Analysis |

Coronavirus Crisis Forces Israel and Palestinians to Stare Into the Same Abyss

An unofficial cease-fire in Gaza and an agreement forged in relative silence with the PA over the entry of workers from the West Bank: cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians is at its tightest ever

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A Palestinian health ministry officer stands at the gate of the Erez crossing with Israel near Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on March 15, 2020.
A Palestinian health ministry officer stands at the gate of the Erez crossing with Israel near Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on March 15, 2020.Credit: AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The military and intelligence community is busy with Iran and developments concerning the spread of the coronavirus in the Palestinian territories. Cooperation with the Palestinians is at its tightest ever. For now, no one is talking about Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” or annexing the Jordan Valley. Israel and the Palestinian Authority understand that they’re staring into this abyss together and acting accordingly.

The coronavirus has imposed an unofficial cease-fire on the Gaza Strip. Israel has a supreme interest in ensuring that the disease doesn’t hit Gaza, whose isolation from the world seems to be protecting it for now. And Israel has sent a small number of corona test kits to Gaza – despite the shortage of kits in Israel.

At the same time, an agreement has been forged in relative silence between Israel and the PA over the entry of workers from the West Bank into Israel. About 70,000 workers from the West Bank employed in construction, agriculture and key factories have entered Israel for two months and will be lodged at their workplaces under the responsibility of their employers. Another 10,000 Palestinians will come to work in the settlements. It is assumed that thousands more will work illegally in Arab towns inside Israel.

Palestinian workers enter Israel to remain for an extended period of time on Wednesday, March 18, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The goal is to prevent the collapse of construction companies and factories while limiting movement between Israel and the West Bank to reduce the risk of infection. The main hurdle to reaching this agreement was the Shin Bet security service, which is worried about the security risks. In return for its consent, there has been a halt to the entry of 7,000 workers from Gaza, which was approved two months ago despite the Shin Bet’s opposition.

For now, Hamas hasn’t made a big deal of the economic damage caused to Gaza because of the fears of COVID-19 trickling in. A senior officer on the General Staff told Haaretz that a widespread outbreak of the coronavirus in the Palestinian territories worries the army a lot. The general said he can’t shirk his responsibility, on a moral level too, to help the Palestinians avoid the virus – so the army is in close cooperation with the PA.

At the moment, Iran has the third highest number of coronavirus cases in the world. According to official announcements, whose credibility is dubious, over 18,000 Iranians have become ill and some 1,300 of them have died, putting Iran behind Italy and China, where the government claims to have halted the disease. The year 2020 is a horrible one for the regime in Iran. It began with the Americans’ killing of Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani and the mistaken shooting down of a Ukrainian airliner by Iran’s air defense – an error that the Iranian regime tried hard to cover up.

Since then the Iranian economy has continued to deteriorate under the burden of the U.S. economic sanctions, whose damage has been worsened by the drop in oil process. The Iranians, in threats and entreaties, are trying to convince Washington to reduce the pressure.

So far, the Trump administration hasn’t given in. Tehran’s regional power is at an unprecedented low; Iran is busier with itself than with the conflict with Israel. It’s possible that this leaves an opening for a deal in the future: easing the American sanctions in return for a withdrawal of the Revolutionary Guards from Syria, Yemen and even Iraq.

Given their situation, the Iranians might even consider a withdrawal. But the intelligence community must take into account the opposite scenario: a desperate Iran increasing the friction with the United States in a way that also affects Israel.

Still chaotic

In his nightly addresses to the nation, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praises himself and his staff for their preparations for the coronavirus. But the picture now emerging shows the opposite: Israel held discussions early but was late in taking several necessary steps.

Even though the country has only one main entrance, Ben-Gurion International Airport, control over incoming flights and the closing of the gates to foreigners happened belatedly. The virus incubates for days, so carriers roamed freely without anyone knowing their condition.

Another failure is the lack of testing. There’s no justification for the fact that Israel is still doing just over 1,000 coronavirus tests a day – more than three weeks after the first patient here was identified.

Netanyahu compares this campaign to a war, but the state is entering it without enough information. An increase in the number of tests won’t just allow patients to be quarantined and treated quickly, it will create a map of the areas most affected. Some ministers say the Health Ministry doesn’t really believe in testing and is therefore impeding an expansion of the testing effort.

Not only are the hospitals weak, but so is the ministry. It has nowhere near the resources and experience that the defense establishment has for managing a crisis.

This isn’t a recommendation to pass the buck to the army. But no single entity is coordinating and controlling the activities of all the relevant organizations. In a security crisis, defense officials serve that function. But the corona crisis is falling between the cracks – between the exhausted Health Ministry and the National Security Council, which is more used to being Netanyahu’s agent for special assignments.

There’s no comparison with the orderly way the army (which of course isn’t perfect) prepares for major events on the home front, from earthquakes to rocket attacks. To wage a broad national campaign, you need a strategy, a limited steering committee focused exclusively on the campaign, and of course a functional public-information system instead of the chaos that now prevails.

The army’s corona plan

Military Intelligence’s 8153 technology unit finished developing something new this past week: an improved ambulance in which the separation between the driver and the medic, and between them and the patient was maximized. The objective is to provide better protection for the medical staff – a weak spot discovered in Israel’s preparations against the coronavirus.

Staff of the Magen David Adom ambulance service already have plenty of protective gear, by the way. Most of the tension, for now, concerns two other parts of the health system: the hospitals, which will be treating the patients in more serious condition, and the community clinics, where civilian staff meet the patients coming in to be examined – and where a more serious shortage of equipment is being reported.

The prototype ambulance, which will most likely be quickly copied by the rescue services, reflects a major change in the way the army is addressing the coronavirus crisis. A week and a half ago, the military still saw itself as a supporting player in tackling the outbreak and was considering how to best preserve its units’ operational capabilities. The hope was that the storm would pass quickly so the military could return to its multiyear plan.

Today it’s clear that the Momentum multiyear plan has become the Corona multiyear plan. The army will have to fight over the resources that remain after the economic tsunami hits Israel’s shores.

Still, the military is an institution that adapts quickly. From the moment the General Staff received its role in the national mission, it was all in. The hospitals have yet to be flooded with the sick, so the army has more time to organize.

The Home Front Command and the Operations Directorate will lead the efforts to aid the civilian population while the big work is done to prevent shutdowns in the military because of the coronavirus. The army is working in shifts and in closed compounds (“capsules,” they call them), where the entry restrictions are especially strict. This would guarantee that air force squadrons, submarines and intelligence units continue to function, even if COVID-19 runs rampant on the outside.

Among the combat units, soldiers won’t be allowed home visits for at least a month. The problem is that many units aren't keeping to the distancing rules; this has been seen in videos showing soldiers in very crowded bases – as if there were no danger from the coronavirus at all. At the same time, certain vital people such as the cybergeniuses in the 8200 intelligence unit are wrapping themselves in layers of protection, and they’ve been isolated as a group in the hope that they can skirt the virus.

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