Coronavirus: An opportunity to reset Israeli relations with the Palestinians

Thus far, when it comes to curbing corona, the “failed state,” despite limited resources and medical infrastructure, has done even better than Israel.

A boy wearing a face mask walks inside Jaramana Palestinian refugee camp, following the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Damascus, Syria April 1, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)
A boy wearing a face mask walks inside Jaramana Palestinian refugee camp, following the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Damascus, Syria April 1, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)
The shock, trauma and carnage wrought by the coronavirus should be cause for introspection and reflection in Israel about many things, foremost, our often tortuous relations with the Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority.
Many Israelis only hear of Palestinians when there is a stabbing or drive-by shooting. The scars of the devastating suicide bombings of the Second Intifada still run deep. That may be why few in the Israeli public and media noticed that the PA has thus far done an excellent job in containing COVID-19,
With the plague still spreading death and disease across the globe, and spiraling relentlessly in the US and UK, the PA, which has self-rule in the West Bank (subject to Israeli military predominance) reached a positive milestone last Wednesday: There were zero new cases of coronavirus.
Some governorates, including Bethlehem, are now infection-free, according to the PA.
All told, as of May 13, there had been two deaths from corona in the West Bank (not including east Jerusalem, where there were two deaths), and 547 cases with 382 recoveries, according to the PA Health Ministry. That is a remarkable feat for the PA, which has repeatedly been labeled a “failed state” by academics and politicians on the Israeli Right, notably Prof. Efraim Inbar, former director of Bar-Ilan University’s BESA Center for Strategic Studies, and now head of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies.
Thus far, when it comes to curbing corona, the “failed state,” despite limited resources and medical infrastructure, has done even better than Israel.
For a change, the PA could relish a success acknowledged also by Israeli observers.
“The functioning [of the PA] deserves a lot of praise,” said Aviv Tatarsky, an analyst at the Forum for Regional Thought. “People thought things would be worse there than in Israel. But the functioning has been successful so far. At this point, corona has hurt Israel more than the PA, and this is the result of the PA’s decisions.”
Kobi Michael, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies and editor of its Strategic Assessment publication, said, “The PA has demonstrated effective capacities in handling the crisis.... The Palestinian public displayed discipline and the way the PA conducted the crisis helped to increase public support.”
In particular, Palestinian analysts say, the PA got it right by responding quickly in declaring a state of emergency and shuttering schools and shops right after the first cases were discovered in Bethlehem in early March. Impacted areas were sealed off and a full lockdown ensued.
PA PRIME MINISTER Mohammed Shtayyeh “understood the health capabilities are very limited so he focused on preventive measures which enabled him to succeed in slowing the spread of the virus so the figures on our side are relatively impressive,” said Ghassan Khatib, a former PA minister who teaches at Bir Zeit University.
Along with the success, the popularity of both Shtayyeh and the normally derided PA shot up, although the gains may well evaporate unless solutions are found for the heightened economic distress.
Shtayyeh also won public confidence with an effective media strategy in which he, PA spokesman Ibrahim Milhim and ministers held frequent briefings and press conferences.
But parts of the media strategy should evoke concern. It often blamed Israel, and in the view of some, even veered into antisemitism. Milhim at one point termed Israel “the agent of corona” amid PA anger that Israel was not organizing an orderly and staged return of Palestinian laborers to the West Bank. Most of the Palestinian corona cases originated from laborers who were infected while in Israel,according to PA officials.
Shtayyeh tweeted on April 1, “The real weakness in our battle against COVID-19 is the Israeli occupation and all its policies that attempt to thwart our efforts to protect our people. We don’t accept Israeli guardianship over our measures. What is required is for Israel to leave us alone.”
But such rhetoric, which mirrors similar Israeli diatribes and campaigning to discredit the PA, can change if a more positive relationship is sought by both sides. Moreover, despite often unpalatable statements, the PA has demonstrated an unswerving commitment to cooperation with the IDF to thwart terrorist attacks.
To be sure, the PA still has a long way to go. It hasn’t held an election since 2007, and it is very far from being a democracy; Tanzim militiamen still hold sway in refugee camps; the judiciary is a tool of President Mahmoud Abbas; it is a financial basket case, relying on foreign aid; and it gives stipends to the families of imprisoned terrorists.
But now, with its handling of corona, we’ve seen its true potential and learned that it is definitely not a “failed state,” a designation that was always unfair since it is a limited self-rule body subject to Israel’s whims.
Indeed, with encouragement from Israel rather than annexation in the West Bank and enmity, the PA and the Palestinians may yet prove to be a viable peace partner.

The writer is a former Middle East affairs reporter at
The Jerusalem Post.