Opinion |

Coronavirus 'Truce': The Guns Falling Silent Across the Middle East

A sudden quiet reverberates around one of the most troubled, violent regions on earth. Israel’s military is mirroring the enforced restraint shown by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas - for now

Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman
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Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas stand at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, March 15, 2020.
Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt in the southern Gaza Strip, closed for coronavirus concerns. March 15, 2020.Credit: AFP
Yossi Melman head
Yossi Melman

The novel coronavirus pandemic has thus far verified an adapted version of the saying - attributed to a Soviet Union official during WWII and paraphrased by Truman Capote - that "When the guns roar, the muses are silent."

But our reality now is that when the virus roars and spreads, the guns are silenced. A sudden, relative quiet reverberates across the Middle East – one of the most troubled and violent regions on earth. From Iran to Libya, from Syria to Yemen and from Israel to Lebanon, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, the number of violent incidents has dramatically diminished.

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Guns may crush creativity, but the coronavirus - the uncertainty and fear of the unknown – is paralyzing familiar patterns of behavior.

But the region is drastically unused to this form of force majeure - and can’t sustain zero violence. In recent days, three soldiers – two from the U.S., one from the UK - were killed in an attack in Iraq, most probably by a pro-Iranian militia; in response, U.S. warplanes and drones hit militia positions killing a few Iraqi militiamen and, in an unconfirmed reports, a senior Iranian officer. In the West Bank, a 15 year-old Palestinian boy was killed after clashes with Israeli troops.

Leaders and military commanders of sworn enemies are pre-occupied by the coronavirus crisis. They have had to put the mindset of violent provocation and retaliation on hold. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard minimal inflammatory rhetoric and only small doses of aggression. That modified behavior is the same regardless of whether those national or factional leaders really care for their people’s health and well-being or are acting out of fear that public rage will turn against them and destabilize their power base or regime.

People pass in front the emergency entrance of the government-run Rafik Hariri Hospital, Beirut, Lebanon, March 11, 2020Credit: Hussein Malla,AP

We’ve even heard declarations that are so surprising it’s no exaggeration to dub them as unprecedented. The terror group that sanctifies violence, ISIS, issued instructions for how to deal with the virus which were almost identical to the rest of the world, from handwashing to avoiding travel within Europe - with one exception – a strong emphasis on relying on Allah.

In Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi declared a few days ago that it was permitted to use an Israeli anti-corona vaccine "if there is no other alternative." That was in response to reports that were, at the least, dramatically premature: that Israel’s Institute for Biological Research had already developed a corona vaccine. The institute and private laboratories are working on it, but openly admitted that it would take many months probably a year to research, develop and produce an effective and reliable vaccine.

Many countries across the region share another common trait: a reliance on the military to assist civil society in times of crisis.

In Israel, with its mighty army and technological and other resources, the military will supervise three major healthcare centers to treat lightly-affected patients, in order to vacant hospital beds for more serious cases. Just as the National Guard has been mobilized in the state of New York, 2000 reservists from Israel’s Homeland Command have been called up in case they’re needed as an auxiliary force to assist the civil authorities.

Israel has also decided to quarantine almost every serving soldier in their bases, in order to isolate them from the rest of the society and preserve its defensive fighting force. Such a mandate will also cut down on the movement of large numbers of people around the country, including on public transport, thus helping to minimize the number of carriers and victims, still are relatively low, with over 250 infected but so far no deaths.

The coronavirus emergency has forced Israel’s intelligence community - Shin Bet, Mossad and military intelligence (Aman) - to adapt themselves to the new reality. Thanks to travel bans and restrictions on face-to-face meetings, their collection methods have to be modified. They must minimize what is called humint (running agents) and expand the use of technological measures – digital devices, cyber, big data analysis and so on.

A closed school in the Israeli coastal city of Netanya, a preventive measure to limit the spread of the coronavirus, March 13, 2020.Credit: Jack Guez/AFP

In Iran too, the Revolutionary Guards, army and police are mobilized for the battle against the virus. In Lebanon, the army and Hezbollah are also working hand in hand to contain the disease. Even in Hamas-ruled Gaza and in the Palestinian Authority - with their limited capabilities - the police, the military and security bodies play a dominant rule.

Iran has been worse hit by the virus than any other country in the region, with the official death count over 700 and with more than 14,000 sick, one quarter of them in Tehran. However the Iranian regime is not known for its truth-telling: the actual figures could be twice as high. Even with its official statistics, Iran ranks third in the world, after China and Italy. Hundreds of Iranian officials and military commanders - some in senior positions – have been infected by the virus. According to opposition groups (not always the most reliable sources) dozens of them have died.

Iran has been also identified as a major proliferator of the virus to Iraq (10 deaths) and Lebanon (three). Israel, Gaza, the West Bank, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Saudi Arabia have so far been spared a death toll.

Even without COVID-19, Iran’s situation was fragile. The sanctions imposed by President Trump nearly two years ago dramatically escalated a deterioration in economic, social and health conditions. Now the situation is even harsher with the drop in oil prices, its main source of revenue.

Firefighters disinfect a street against the new coronavirus, in western Tehran, Iran, March 13, 2020.Credit: Vahid Salemi,AP

To restrain the public anger and divert attention from the regime’s long term negligence, some officials and religious leaders have pointed the finger at Israel and the West, propagating conspiracy theories, filled with anti-Semitism- that the Jews have deliberately spread the virus.

For Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, and its Quds Force (whose commander General Qassem Soleimani was assassinated in a U.S. drone attack two months ago), the new and troubling circumstances have triggered a moment to pause and reflect. They have withdrawn from extending their presence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen and, in some cases, have even reduced it.

For now, Israel’s military is acting as Tehran’s mirror image: a model of restraint. There have been no recent reports of major attacks by the Israeli Air Force against Iranian and pro-Iranian militia positions in Syria or Iraq. Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon have also tended to respect the de facto coronavirus cease fire.

In the virus’ shadow, Israel realizes that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas have the luxury or breathing space to initiate and trigger violence right now. And geographical proximity and the simple scientific fact that the virus doesn’t distinguish between borders, people soil, air and water means that they have to cooperate. And indeed they are.

Israel and PA medical teams are sharing information, best practice, ideas and equipment. To reduce the potential damage to the already weak Palestinian economy, Israel has postponed a full closure of the border to allow a limited number of Palestinian workers to enter Israel. Israel has even sent medical supplies to Hamas.

It would be quite wrong, though, to imagine that the coronavirus will birth a completely new Middle East. It is far more realistic to recognize that the cessation of violence will be temporary. Once the virus is defeated, all parties will return to the all-too-familiar square one of continued fighting, animosity and hatred. As history has always shown, ideology is stronger than human dignity and decency.

Yet it might not be completely utopian to hope the coronavirus emergency will result in minor cracks in this wall of zealotry, not least by reminding all the peoples of the Middle East how fragile life is - and how death by pandemic doesn’t differentiate by ideology.

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