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With the World Pre-occupied With Coronavirus, Israel Pushes a West Bank Land Grab

Pushing annexation right now is playing with fire. It would likely force Israelis and Palestinians into a two-front war: an armed conflict, while fighting, without coordination, COVID-19

Evan Gottesman
Evan Gottesman
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Sanitizing a house in al-Fari'ah refugee camp, part of a coronavirus prevention campaign by UNRWA and the Popular Committee. March 31, 2020
Sanitizing a house in al-Fari'ah refugee camp, part of a coronavirus prevention campaign by UNRWA and the Popular Committee. March 31, 2020.Credit: RANEEN SAWAFTA/ REUTERS
Evan Gottesman
Evan Gottesman

An emergency unity government to confront coronavirus: that’s been Benjamin Netanyahu’s pitch to his rivals in Kachol Lavan since Israel’s March 2 Knesset elections. Kachol Lavan chief Benny Gantz acquiesced to what he considered Netanyahu’s genuine call to “put politics aside” for the sake of the country’s welfare, splitting his party apart in the process. And now, the prime minister is letting on that dealing with the pandemic was never his only priority. 

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With coalition negotiations underway in Jerusalem, West Bank annexation still remains a top priority on the agenda for the Israeli right. Netanyahu still wants to pursue the Trump plan, and Naftali Bennett, Yamina party head and acting Defense Minister is making annexation a condition for joining the government

This revanchist turn clashes with the success of Israeli-Palestinian collaboration on the coronavirus front, an accomplishment that cannot be taken for granted if the annexationists get their way.

Israel recently won rare praise from the United Nations for its cooperation with the Palestinian Authority in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. OCHA, the UN’s disaster response agency noted "close, unprecedented cooperation aimed at containing the epidemic." Speaking to the Middle East Quartet late last week, UN Special Envoy Nickolay Mladenov echoed those sentiments, calling the coordination "excellent." 

A man sells bread near an Israeli-controlled checkpoint near Ramallah to Palestinians heading to work in Israel. March 19, 2020
A man sells bread near an Israeli-controlled checkpoint near Ramallah to Palestinians heading to work in Israel. March 19, 2020.Credit: MOHAMAD TOROKMAN/ REUTERS

Facilitating the safe return of Palestinian guest workers (and accommodations for those who stay) in Israel, the establishment of a joint communication mechanism, the supply of testing kits and protective equipment to the occupied territories (albeit a relatively small amount thus far), and the enforcement of public health restrictions across the Green Line are all critical achievements in Israel and the PA’s fight against coronavirus. 

The effort has not been seamless, with incidents like the apparent abandonment by Israeli Police of a sick Palestinian worker at a West Bank checkpoint. The West Bank also still suffers a dearth of ventilators and other critical equipment. And Gaza, with its threadbare heath care system, would be especially hard hit if the infection rate grows.

But, on the whole, the joint undertaking is still important, generating unprecedented support from the Palestinian public. Israelis and Palestinians have been able to coordinate on key areas to combat coronavirus in large part because the PA provides a single address in Ramallah for Israel to relay its concerns to. 

Annexation threatens that line of communication. Many project that even a land-grab ostensibly limited in scope, such as one covering Area C (60 percent of the West Bank) or the roughly 30 percent allotted to Israel under the Trump plan, could seriously undermine the Palestinian Authority - or even trigger its collapse. 

It is important to remember that the PA did not enter the coronavirus pandemic on the most solid footing. Ramallah was unable to pay public servants in full for a period of several months last year. Sending Palestinian guest workers home may be a public health imperative for Israelis and Palestinians in the time of coronavirus, but it has the potential to devastate the West Bank’s economy, which is heavily reliant on remittances.

Washington had cut all aid to the Palestinians, including now much-needed humanitarian assistance, and relations with the United States reached their nadir in late January after the release of the Trump plan

A banner depicts Benny Gantz and Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of Kahol Lavan's campaign ahead of Israel's March 2 election.
A banner depicts Benny Gantz and Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as part of Kahol Lavan's campaign ahead of Israel's March 2 election. Credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS

Pushing annexation now, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and acting Defense Minister Naftali Bennett appear intent on doing amid coalition talks, is really playing with fire when it comes to the PA’s continued stability and Israelis’ security.

Without the PA, Israel might find itself forced to coordinate a response to coronavirus with disparate local Palestinian leaders across the West Bank. If the door is definitively closed on a two-state solution, Palestinians will (understandably) demand the rights and privileges that come with Israeli citizenship; not just political and civil liberties but access to social services, including health care. This would accelerate extant trends driving support for one state among younger Palestinians.

In the West Bank, closures and curfews designed to curb the pandemic’s spread would have to be implemented on a city-by-city, village-by-village basis. Israel security forces could redeploy in the West Bank to fill the vacuum left by the PA. While the West Bank Palestinian leadership is not particularly popular with the public, PA officials enforcing these measures are far more likely to achieve compliance than Israeli troops who will take their place if the PA folds.

Israel-PA cooperation against coronavirus is laudable. But rocket fire from Gaza late last week, followed in short order by an Israeli military response, made clear that the sudden appearance of an external threat will not simply erase all of the old antagonisms, Watchmen style.

Hamas was not behind the most recent attacks, and it is even working with Israel, however informally, in some areas to address the pandemic. But the Israel-Hamas relationship, still largely characterized by hostility, cannot hold a candle to the kind of close security coordination between Israel and the PA.

Palestinians in Gaza burn an Israeli flag during an event marking Land Day near the Israel-Gaza border. Mass rallies were cancelled. March 30, 2020
Palestinians in Gaza burn an Israeli flag during an event marking Land Day near the Israel-Gaza border. Mass rallies were cancelled. March 30, 2020.Credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS

Without that partnership, Israelis and Palestinians might find themselves in a two-front war: one, an armed conflict, and the second, a fight against coronavirus. This is a conflict both sides can ill afford now. 

Israel is relying on the military to administer a lockdown at home and suspending enlistment for some IDF units. Meanwhile, casualties from and infrastructure destruction from an escalation with Israel could completely overwhelm a Palestinian healthcare system already severely strained by coronavirus.

These are not new factors. The predominance of coronavirus on the global policy agenda does not erase all other problems; on the contrary, it compounds them. Israeli leaders like Netanyahu and Bennett may calculate that now is a convenient time to annex West Bank territory.

The threat of penalties imposed by foreign governments long stayed the prime minister’s hand, even as he ramped up his rhetoric over the course of three election campaigns. But today the world’s attention is elsewhere and the Israeli opposition is fractured by the breakup of Kachol Lavan and the Labor-Gesher-Meretz alliance. 

Yet difficult as it is to see, coronavirus will pass. When it does, annexation pursued under the cover of a pandemic may draw the ire of the international community, from the European Union and even from U.S. political leaders.

Palestinian security forces’ checkpoint at a main entrance to Hebron in the West Bank amid efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. March 23, 2020
Palestinian security forces’ checkpoint at a main entrance to Hebron in the West Bank amid efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19. March 23, 2020.Credit: AFP

A recent letter to the Trump administration initiated by U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Chris Van Hollen urged the White House, in light of coronavirus, to release funds that Congress has allocated for humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, and to consider pressuring Israel to ease restrictions on Gaza, framing those moves as being "in the national security interest of the United States and in the interest of the Palestinian people and our ally Israel." The letter demonstrates that leaders in Washington remain engaged in the Middle East not despite the global public health crisis, but because of it.

And in the near term, there are still diplomatic risks: annexation could very well jeopardize Israel’s efforts to solicit foreign backing for its own efforts against coronavirus - and for those joint efforts with the PA.

If annexation is pushed and implemented right now, Palestinians will be in a far worse position when the pandemic ends. Opportunistic Israeli politicians will also find that a global crisis is a weak pretext for annexation. Israel may then find itself the target of censure and international pressure just at the moment it was hoping to rebuild domestically, and reengage with the world.

Evan Gottesman is the Associate Director of Policy and Communications at Israel Policy Forum. Twitter: @EvanGottesman

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