A few weeks on from the coronavirus outbreak in Israel, a state of rift, disagreement, and anger continues among the Isreali community and its official institutions concerning the battle against this virus. As the outbreak happened one month after the elections and the subsequent failure in forming a government, it’s now widely believed that the virus has been politically exploited for personal interests. While this situation has added economic anxieties and a prospective health crisis for the Israelis, a glimmer of hope is visible on Palestinian and Arab horizons. There are two important aspects in facing the coronavirus which may contribute immensely in fulfilling expectations that the virus may be a reason for better future Israeli- Arab relations. The first aspect was made clear when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel has turned to other countries in the region in order to purchase ventilators due to the current shortage that the country is facing. There is hope that this step will contribute to reconciliation between Arab countries in the region and Israel. The other aspect that has added to this hope was the amiable discussions between Arab and Israeli internet users had regarding the coronavirus. These discussions happened through the Israeli Ministry of Health’s communication webpage, shortly after it announced that Israel might be on the verge of manufacturing a vaccine against the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, Professor Hossam Hayek from the Technion Institute in Haifa revealed that they are close to finding new technology for early detection of coronavirus. In an interview with Majalla, Hayek stressed that it is only a matter of time, and that there is progress in reaching results that guarantee two new technological methods of early detection of coronavirus. The technology consists of detection patches on the skin.
According to Professor Hayek, the device is currently in one of the countries that were hit by the virus, and once it is returned and proven successful, it will start being used to save as many coronavirus patients as possible.
However, Professor Hayek believes that around 50 to 70 percent of the population may become infected with coronavirus, and it is highly possible that the virus will return next year or at any time really.
Professor Hossam Hayek from the Technion Institute in Haifa
NETANYAHU’S CORONA CRISIS
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Finance are facing an internal struggle with regards to how to tackle the coronavirus crisis. One of the internal conflicts has to do with the fact that Netanyahu is refusing to enforce a total lockdown, and political analysts think that this is an extension of the political deadlock in Israel which has prevented it from forming a functioning government. On the other hand, some politicians and research institutes think that this coronavirus crisis might be the start of political reconciliation between the Palestinians and Israel, and improved relations between Israel and Arab states, especially those that have peace treaties with Israel. Another significant development was when Israel bought ventilators from Arab states in order to address its shortage and save lives. This development will have the manifest result of preventing many infected Israelis from dying and it might also result in the latent benefit of improving Israeli-Arab relations.
THE IMPACT OF CORONAVIRUS ON ARAB-ISRAELI RELATIONS
At a time when most of Israel’s sociopolitical and health institutions are busy trying to find ways to confront the current health crisis and upcoming economic crisis, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has used this crisis as an opportunity to build bridges with the Arab nation across the region. On its social media pages, the Israeli foreign ministry has stated that the country’s scientists have been hard at work developing a vaccine for the coronavirus. This peaked the interest of Arab social media users in the region. The engagement pages have had with Arab users have given a glimmer of hope that reconciliation can go from a fleeting dream to a concrete reality. For example one of the ministry’s pages featured a selfie showing three Arabic speaking ministry employees wishing Arab states the fortitude to come out of the crisis as soon as possible. This photo was viewed by 5 million Arab users and two days later, the ministry posted another message stating: “Israel is praying for God to protect the Arab nation from the coronavirus. The virus is quickly spreading throughout the entire world, and it knows no borders, religious groups or nations. We’re all human, we’re all brothers and sisters.” The post received comments from Yemen, Morroco, Tunisia, Egypt, Sudan and the list goes on. One of the comments read: “Our hearts are with Israel, together we can defeat the virus.” Zakaria from Sudan wrote: “May God save and bless you.” Amin from Iraq wrote, “What came from your page is a beautiful message of solidarity and peace.” Another user from Iraq wrote: “Our hearts are with Israel and the entire world with its diverse nations, religions and faiths which can unite in this fight against this virus.” There is a long list of such amiable messages on the page, and most of the users called for peace and reconciliation with Israel. However, there were also hundreds of others who wished for the coronavirus to annihilate Israel and its citizens. One user from Syria wrote: “May God save all of the world’s inhabitants, except those from Iran and Israel.” Another wrote: “May God protect you just long enough until you manufacture that vaccine.” Another user who didn’t mention his nationality wrote: “You are not human and we are not brothers.”
A CONSENSUS ON AN ISRAELI VACCINE
A survey was recently posted on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ webpage with the question: “ Would you use the vaccine which Israel is developing against coronavirus?” The majority of the users gave an affirmative response. Moreover, millions of people from the Arab world interacted with the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs through its Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts to inquire about the new possible vaccination against the coronavirus and when it may be used or obtained.
THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFEDERATION, A STRUGGLE AGAINST NATURAL DISASTERS
Coronavirus came at the peak of the crisis between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which has been broiling since the announcement of the “Deal of the Century”. This crisis subsequently ceased security coordination between the two parties. After the rise of coronavirus cases in Israel, several of the country’s factions have considered what first steps Israel should take to ensure that the Palestinian Authority is capable of containing the virus within the territories controlled by Israel. This is because any outbreak on Palestinian lands can quickly spread to Israel. Some have warned against the Israeli measures taken to close the crossings and prevent Palestinian workers from entering Israel for two months, as senior researchers at the National Security Research Institute think this step will worsen the economic crisis in the West Bank, and thus result in an economic collapse that will greatly affect the Palestinian Authority’s response in facing the virus. Accordingly, the researchers believed that the virus should motivate Israel to create an effective cooperative network with the Palestinian Authority and the countries with which it maintains peace agreements (Jordan and Egypt). Additionally, there is a need for a change in relations with the Gaza Strip. It is true that Israel allowed trucks to cross into the Strip, but that is not enough. The researchers found that by not seeking mutual cooperation to end the coronavirus crisis, Israel would risk growing instability in the Gaza strip which would thus intensify the possibilities of escalation, and reignite the protests at the Gaza Wall.
Yossi Beilin, the former leader of the Meretz Party and one of the key Israeli figures who initiated the Oslo Peace Agreement, stated: “Today, the coronavirus has penetrated the barriers between Israel and the occupied Palestinian lands, however the lack of accord between both governments can be detrimental to both our efforts in tackling the virus. An event like the coronavirus will make us rethink the way we look at our regional maps, and the formation of an Israeli-Palestinian confederation will be necessary in order to ensure our cooperation. Although bilateral cooperation already exists between us, there is no doubt that better political relations can be formed which will, in turn, guarantee better coordination.”
The head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University Colonel Reserve Micheal Milstein said: “The coronavirus is an opportunity for us to reestablish our relations with the Palestinians. Furthermore, Israel needs to be ready to increase its civilian aid to Palestinian territories in order to maintain its own security.”
Millstein also stated that the coronavirus has highlighted the economic and civil connection between Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians rely on Israel for employment, movement and assistance while the Palestinian labor force is vital for Israel. Both sides fear a complete closure of borders, something that would be strategically counterintuitive. The authorities in the West Bank boast that they have contained the spread of the virus, but Palestinians fear that the PA will ban the 120 thousand workers who work in Israel and its settlements from travelling to these areas. That would cause an economic disruption to Palestinian civilian life.
Millstein also thinks that the coronavirus will, for the short-term, put an end to violent friction, especially in Gaza. The aid that Israel is presenting to the Palestinians to tackle the coronavirus can reduce the tensions between it and the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. It can also persuade Hamas to make concessions that will increase the stability and security in this part of the world. However, this can prove to be a difficult task at present times in light of the economic challenges that Israel is facing these days.
A man wearing a protective face masks walks at the partly closed Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market on March 26, 2020,
WILL CORONAVIRUS PATIENTS FROM GAZA AND THE WEST BANK BE TREATED IN ISRAEL?
Another aspect that needs to be considered is whether Palestinians seeking treatment in Israel is grounds to restore relations between both parties. This is a sensitive topic because Israeli citizens are living in a state of anxiety due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus and the large number of people who are dying from it.
While speaking to Haaretz a senior Israeli official said: “In Israel, we’re worried that the first coronavirus case in the West Bank will cause a massive spread of the virus, that, in turn, would cause a big burden on the health sector there.” Israel is also fearful that it’s own health sector will not have enough beds to accommodate all Israeli patients in the event of a virus outbreak.
The official also said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority share coordinated protocols in the event of natural disasters. Unfortunately, there are no coordinated procedures between both parties which could tackle virus outbreaks similar to that of the coronavirus. “In cases of natural disasters, we can rely on international aid, and Israel has the capabilities to rebuild itself and its regional neighbors, the same cannot be said in the case of the coronavirus.” The official said.
The Haaretz article also indicated that some of the items used to treat thos with the virus are “dual-use” in nature. For instance, liquid oxygen can be used as both a disinfectant and a component for explosive devices. So far, Israel has not eased the entry policy of such products.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR ARAB-ISRAELIS
The coronavirus came amidst the political deadlock in Israel which the latest parliamentary election has thus far failed to resolve. At the same time, the Arab-Israeli Joint List managed to increase its parliamentary presence from 13 seats to 15 seats.
Political expert Shimon Schaffer has said that the coronavirus is an opportunity for the Arab-Israeli political establishment to gain popular recognition. He also thinks that the path for Israelis to accept Arab MPs as equal partners and not enemies will be a long and difficult one. But he notes that all inhabitants share this country, and that Israelis had to accept that there are diverse ethnic groups in the country. Furthermore stripping these groups of their rights isn’t right.
Schaffer then spoke about a recent experience he had at an Israeli clinic which reflects the importance of changing the policy used in dealing with Arab-Israelis and descendants of 1948 Palestinians.
He said, “Yesterday morning, I received medical treatment at a clinic in Bnei Brak, most of the nurses and doctors were Arabs who come every day from the cities and villages in the north and the center to help all of us. They are dedicated and highly commendable. They do not mix politics with their work: they provide treatment for everyone. I suppose the only thing that matters to them is that we all understand that they are citizens that have equal rights, just like us. And he added, “Netanyahu, you have a responsibility to thank them, because they are working throughout the year to treat the same population that you belong to, the elderly.”