Could the coronavirus bring peace among Israelis and Palestinians?

The respective governments of the Jewish State and Palestinian territories find themselves united for the first time as they battle against a common enemy.

A Jewish Magen David Adom volunteer stands next to a Muslim MDA volunteer. (photo credit: MOHAMD ALNBARE/MDA SPOKESPERSON)
A Jewish Magen David Adom volunteer stands next to a Muslim MDA volunteer.
(photo credit: MOHAMD ALNBARE/MDA SPOKESPERSON)
 In a region infamous for its sectarian tension, the coronavirus has catalyzed an unlikely alliance between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. Last Tuesday, the Palestine branch of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs praised “unprecedented cooperation on efforts aimed at containing the epidemic” between Israeli and Palestinian authorities in their preliminary emergency situation report. The respective governments of the Jewish State and Palestinian territories, in a seemingly eternal state of conflict, find themselves united for the first time as they battle against a common enemy. 
Despite perpetual tension, the economies of Israel and Palestine are closely intertwined. Both rely heavily on international tourism to their world-famous historic and religious sites. 2019 was a record-breaking year for both economies' tourism industries; Israel welcomed 4.55 million tourists, the highest number to date, adding 23 billion shekels to the economy, while Palestine also saw record-breaking numbers, surpassing 3 million visitors. Millions of tourists travel to the countries’ holy sites each year, making a pilgrimage to Israel’s Jerusalem and Palestine’s Bethlehem, where Jesus is said to have been born. Just a few kilometers apart, these two cities have been the hardest hit in the region during the pandemic. Numbers of confirmed cases in Jerusalem are over 1,700, while Bethlehem has over 150, with much higher numbers of unconfirmed cases feared by both governments.
“Little is known about the collaboration of Israeli and Palestinian tour operators,” says Yossi Orbach, CEO of Israel’s leading tour operator, Tourist Israel, “we stay in close touch with our Palestinian partners and support them during these hard times. This crisis has many Israelis realizing now that we have much more similarities with Palestinians than differences.” Tourist Israel operates a daily Jerusalem, Dead Sea, & Bethlehem tour and an annual Christmas Eve in Bethlehem tour in close collaboration with a local Palestinian operator. Tourist Israel’s founder, Ben Julius, is proud to welcome tourists to experience the Israel and Palestine that the media doesn’t highlight. He points to the viral photograph of two Magen David Adom volunteers, one Jewish and one Muslim, taking a break from saving lives to pray together. “This photo is so moving and has rightfully attracted a lot of attention, but for many people, this is life in Israel. There is a lot of coexistence and interconnectedness that the rest of the world doesn’t see. The tourism industry has played a vital role in promoting collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians, and can serve as an example for other sectors as well”.
Economic cooperations are vital in other sectors as well: approximately 120,000 Palestinian laborers work in Israel in the fields of construction, agriculture and services. The travel restrictions imposed to fight the coronavirus have forced Israeli and Palestinian government officials to work together to find solutions aimed at reducing the risk of cross-border transmissions while trying to minimize disrupting the jobs and labor that both economies rely on. To achieve this, Israel approved for the first time ever for tens of thousands of Palestinian day workers to stay overnight within its borders and even assists in arranging housing solutions for them.
Israel has also facilitated medical training and transferred 120 million shekels to the Palestinian Authority last week. The government is also working with Jamie McGoldrick, The UN Deputy Special Coordinator for the Middle East, to raise donations for environmental projects in the West Bank and protective equipment for Gaza. Israel has already delivered over 1,000 units of corona tests and thousands of personal protective equipment to Palestinian hospitals. In addition, the Israeli government has confirmed that it’s Mossad Intelligence Agency has received orders to expedite global purchases of life-saving ventilators, not just for its Israeli citizens, but for Palestinian hospitals as well. Such efforts on Israel’s behalf to utilize the Mossad for the purpose of saving Palestinian lives is unprecedented.
Joint efforts and goodwill at the field level are developing on a leadership level as well: On Wednesday’s call between Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and PA president Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the pandemic, Rivlin was optimistic: “our ability to work together in times of crisis is also testament to our ability to work together in the future for the good of us all.” In this devastating time of corona, will unprecedented collaboration between these two governments be the silver lining to catalyze the peace process in the middle east?

The author, Iona Hirsch, is the public relations manager of Tourist Israel.