“I never imagined in my life that the day would come when I would see Palestinian policemen impose a curfew on a Palestinian village or town,” said Siham Rishmawi, 63, a Palestinian mother of four from Beit Sahur. “I’m old enough to remember the days when Israeli soldiers were the ones to announce curfews in our town, especially during the First Intifada.”
Beit Sahur, south of Bethlehem, has been under lockdown for the past three weeks, when the first cases of coronavirus were discovered in the area. The nearby town of Beit Jala has also been under lockdown since then, with Palestinian policemen patrolling the streets to urge residents to stay indoors to prevent the spread of the virus.
At least 13 security checkpoints have been set up in the area, as part of this effort. All churches and mosques have been ordered shut, as well as wedding halls, restaurants and coffee shops famous for their nargilas – the colorful water pipes used for smoking flavored tobacco.
“Who would have believed a month ago that we would be in this situation, in which people are banned from leaving their homes, and Bethlehem, Beit Sahur and Beit Jala would become ghost towns?” Rishmawi added. “People here are really frightened because no one knows when this crisis will end.”
Rishmawi, however, is not upset with the Palestinian Police for imposing a curfew and strict restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in the Bethlehem area. On the contrary, she and many residents said they support the tough measures announced by the Palestinian Authority government, headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh.
“Although most people are distressed, they understand that the Palestinian government has no choice but to take strict measures to prevent the disease from spreading,” said Marwan Abu Hajlah, a driver with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
In addition, many Palestinians do not seem to be bothered by the cooperation between the PA and Israel in the fight against the pandemic.
That cooperation, particularly in the security field, has always been one of the most controversial and sensitive issues among Palestinians. For several years, the PA had faced sharp criticism for conducting security coordination with Israel – an act denounced by many Palestinians as an act of treason.
On the eve of the March election in Israel, the PA leadership came under strong criticism for arranging meetings between Palestinians and Israelis. The criticism reached its peak after the PA invited a group of Israeli journalists to a tour of Ramallah and interviews with senior Palestinian officials. The invitation was in the context of the PA’s attempt to undermine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the right-wing bloc by persuading the Israeli public that the Palestinians remain committed to peace and the two-state solution.
The widespread criticism prompted Mohammed al-Madani, head of the Palestinian Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, to submit his resignation to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Madani, who later withdrew his resignation, privately complained that Abbas had failed to defend him and his colleagues against the smear campaign they faced for allegedly promoting normalization with Israel.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, however, appears, at least for now, to have changed the Palestinians’ views about cooperation with Israel.
For the first time in several years, the Palestinians are no longer condemning the cooperation with Israel as a “treacherous” form of normalization with the “Israeli occupation.” And for the first time in many years, Palestinian officials are not afraid to openly talk about cooperation with Israel.
When the first coronavirus cases were confirmed in the Bethlehem area, the first thing the Palestinian Ministry of Health did was to seek Israel’s assistance in testing samples taken from Palestinians suspected of having contracted the disease. PA Minister of Health Mai Alkailah told Palestinian reporters that the samples were sent to Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, in coordination with the Israeli Health Ministry.
Israeli and Palestinian health and security officials suddenly found themselves holding several meetings a day to coordinate efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.
A few days later, Israel announced that it had delivered hundreds of coronavirus testing kits and protective medical gear to the Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The announcement was followed by a revelation made by Palestinian government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem to the effect that the Palestinians and Israel had set up a joint “operations room” to combat the virus. Israel, meanwhile, announced that it has been holding training session for Palestinian and Israeli medical professionals to coordinate efforts to stem the spread of the virus.
“We are in a state of emergency, and when it comes to health issues, there’s no room for controversy,” said Mohammed Arafeh, an official with the Palestinian Ministry of Health. “It would be foolish and irresponsible for anyone to oppose medical cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel in fighting against the pandemic, which does not recognize borders and does not distinguish between a Palestinian and Israeli. This is the time to lay aside any differences and conflicts and join forces in the battle against coronavirus.”
Some Palestinians emphasized that the current cooperation between the PA and Israel does not have any political implications.
“Palestinians are not going to change their opinion about Israel and the occupation because of the virus,” said Bassem Abdel Haq, a Fatah activist from Ramallah. “We are not opposed to cooperation with anyone who is willing to help us save lives. The cooperation against coronavirus is different than security coordination or political meetings between Palestinians and Israelis.”
Abdel Haq and other Palestinians in Ramallah said they are more concerned about the economic repercussions of the pandemic than any form of cooperation with Israel.
The severe restrictions imposed by the Palestinian government in the past few weeks have effectively paralyzed the economy in the West Bank.
“Until a few weeks ago, businesses in Ramallah, Bethlehem were doing very well,” said Hisham Atallah, an Arab-Israeli accountant who has been living in Ramallah together with his wife and two children for the past five years. “Now the streets are empty and people are afraid to leave their homes. I’ve never seen Ramallah as a ghost town, especially at night. The restaurants and coffee shops, which used to be full at night, are closed, and many workers are on unpaid leave.”
Interestingly, the Palestinian public seems for now to be satisfied with the way Shtayyeh and his government are handling the coronavirus crisis. While many Palestinians are willing to accept their government’s medical cooperation with Israel, they are also praising the performance of Shtayyeh and his government, including the Palestinian security forces.
The 62-year-old Shtayyeh, who next month will mark his first year in office, could emerge as the biggest winner in the war on coronavirus.
The daily briefings by Shtayyeh and his spokesman, Milhem, about the pandemic, as well as strict and swift measures taken by the government and security forces, have been received with deep satisfaction by many Palestinians.
“For the first time, we see Palestinian leaders leading the campaign against the disease in a transparent and professional manner,” noted Suhad Shamali, a social worker from the town of Bir Zeit, north of Ramallah.
“We see daily press conferences by the prime minister and his spokesman to inform the public about the latest developments surrounding the virus. The feeling here is that the government is not hiding anything from the public. We also see many officials, especially the governors of the Palestinian cities, touring many areas and talking to the people. This is a good sign, and I would say that Shtayyeh has scored many points with the Palestinian public.”
Nidal Tayeh, co-owner of a Ramallah-based coffee shop, said he shares the view that Shtayyeh could emerge as the biggest winner from the current crisis.
“There’s a feeling here that Shtayyeh is now the leader,” Tayeh remarked. “While most of our leaders, particularly President Abbas, have been in self-isolation since the beginning of the crisis, Shtayyeh has become the most prominent and public figure in the fight against coronavirus.
“Most of our leaders are in their 80s and 70s and are not in good health. That’s why they are staying at home, leaving Shtayyeh and his government alone to face the pandemic.
“Many people are now praising Shtayyeh for his charisma and transparency in dealing with the crisis. Some are even saying that he should be the next president.”
The battle against coronavirus may have boosted Shtayyeh’s chances of succeeding the 84-year-old Abbas, but it is unlikely to result in any fundamental change in Palestinians’ attitude toward Israel.
In order for Shtayyeh to win the hearts and minds of his people, he needs to talk less about cooperation with Israel. The more he condemns Israel, the more he increases his chances of becoming the next Palestinian rais.