The coronavirus outbreak puts Israel in a delicate position regarding the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The epidemic crosses borders and fences, but for now the intensive battle against the virus has contributed to the relative calm on the security front and has even led to close cooperation between the two sides. The big test will come in the next few days, when Israel will have to decide whether to lengthen the full closure that has been imposed on the territories for Purim.
The situations in the West Bank and Gaza are decidedly different. Gaza is much more susceptible to any kind of epidemic, but as yet no coronavirus carriers have been identified there. As of Monday, there have been 26 cases in the West Bank, most of them in the Bethlehem area. In any assessment by the security establishment in recent years, the eruption of infectious diseases in Gaza has been a prominent scenario, given the extreme overcrowding there, the collapsed infrastructures and the poor sanitary conditions. But in this case, the focal point of the coronavirus is outside the Strip, and paradoxically the relative separation of Gaza from the rest of the world is protecting it for now. By contrast, there is no way to hermetically seal the West Bank off from Israel.
Both in the West Bank and in Gaza there is great public concern, bordering on panic, regarding the spread of the coronavirus. An isolation facility has been set up in Rafah in the Strip for people suspected of having been infected. Only a few residents are being housed there now. Movement to and from Egypt through the Rafah crossing has been greatly reduced and the government has called on Gazans to avoid traveling abroad unless absolutely necessary. The primary dilemma for both Israel and Hamas is what to do about Palestinian workers in Israel.
Last month, as part of the effort to ease conditions in the Strip and achieve long-term quiet, Israel agreed to increase the number of entrance permits to Israel to 7,000 merchants and businessmen (though actually, most of those coming in are laborers). This decision hasn’t been fully implemented yet, but Hamas has an interest in utilizing it fully, given the economic distress in the Strip and the fact that the average Palestinian who works in Israel earns six times what he can earn in Gaza.
On the other hand, Hamas has good reason to fear that Gazans who work in Israel might bring the virus back when they return, since it will be very difficult to stop its spread in the crowded Strip. The immediate dilemma, therefore, is primarily Hamas’: Does it halt a critical source of income for the Strip to prevent the introduction of the coronavirus?
If the virus spreads in the Strip, Israel will have difficulty shirking responsibility for it. The international community has never accepted Israel’s argument that it stopped being responsible for Gaza after the disengagement of 2005. And the PA, which is responsible for the Strip under the Oslo Accords, isn’t present there since it was violently expelled by Gaza in 2007. “How will we behave if tens of thousands of Palestinians march to the fence demanding that Israel assist with the humanitarian disaster in the Strip?” asks Dr. Dana Wolf, an expert in international law at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. “The coronavirus is bringing to the surface unsettled problems regarding Israel’s relationship to the Strip that were never resolved over the years.”
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This is indeed a question that has preoccupied the political and security echelons over the past few days, along with all its other problems. The scenario of the coronavirus erupting in Gaza is being filed by the security establishment under the label, “God help us.”
Unlike with Gaza, a physical separation between Israel and the West Bank simply doesn’t exist. The separation barrier that was erected in the middle of the last decade was never completed, has been neglected in recent years and is traversable to anyone determined to cross. Until Monday morning, most of the coronavirus cases had been concentrated in the Bethlehem area, on which the PA has imposed a closure in coordination with Israel. But the rural area between Bethlehem and Hebron is almost impossible to completely close off, so one can assume the disease will continue to spread, at least southward.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who announced that he might impose a full closure on the territories, has yet to make a final decision. For now, laborers from the West Bank, except from the Bethlehem area, are expected to return to work Thursday. Here, too, the dilemma is between the risk of spreading the illness and the consideration of livelihood – and in the West Bank we’re talking about more than 120,000 people employed within the Green Line and in the settlements, along with the tens of thousands living and working in Israel illegally.
The good news, if there is any, is that the threat of an epidemic has very much strengthened the coordination between Israel and the PA, which over the past year has suffered serious crises over the “deal of the century,” the PA’s assistance to security prisoners and recently the dispute over calf imports. The cooperation in the realm of health is especially close and Israel is helping the PA by providing coronavirus testing kits and analyzing the results.
One could perhaps derive from this some lessons for the long term: Both peoples are dependent on one another, and there must be vital issues coordinated to ensure their health and security, irrespective of ideological disputes and military tension.