As the entire world is battling the Coronavirus pandemic, something astounding started happening in the Middle East. Israel and the Palestinian territories, just like the rest of the world, have both been in a state of emergency due to the spread of the virus. As both nations are now facing a common enemy, signs of reconciliation are starting to appear. During his recent press conferences, Ibrahim Molhem, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority, has talked about the prospects of coordination and joint military training between both sides. Israeli officials have also shown optimism as Yotam Shaffer, a spokesperson for the Israeli Defence Ministry has said that both sides have already cooperated in more ways than one. For instance, both sides have worked to evacuate tourists out of their cities before initiating lockdowns, and both sides have also exchanged information on Palestinians arriving at Lod airport. The Palestinian News Agency’s website has recently published an article on a phone call between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in which the latter expressed the need for both sides to cooperate in the face of this pandemic which has overtaken the world, while the former welcomed this initiative of coordinating efforts.
PANDEMICS IN DIPLOMATIC ACCORDS
While it might appear as though such talks of medical cooperation came out of thin air, past accords signed between both sides have detailed the need for coordination during times of outbreaks. Article 17 of the 1995 Oslo II Accords mentioned that both sides would cooperate in combating epidemics and contagious diseases since this is an issue that affects both sides and does not know the bounds of geography and borders. The article further stated that: “1. Israel and the Palestinian side shall exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, shall cooperate in combating them and shall develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents. 2. The health systems of Israel and of the Palestinian side will maintain good working relations in all matters, including mutual assistance in providing first aid in cases of emergency, medical instruction, professional training and exchange of information.”
A less legal and more pragmatic reason why talks of collaboration have started to materialise is that the Coronavirus is a difficult challenge that neither Israel nor the Palestinians can tackle alone. Nevertheless, one should not think that other issues pertaining to the conflict between both sides wouldn’t be factors in this war against this common enemy. Naturally, matters such as Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Palestinian workers working in Israel, the status of Jerusalem as a shared capital between both sides, and Palestinians crossing Israeli borders will be important factors that will impact the cooperation between both sides.
Aziz El Masry, a researcher in politics and history, believes that cooperation between both sides is legally compulsory based on the signed agreements mentioned above. Furthermore, it is delusional to think that both sides have always cut ties, on the contrary ever since its establishment 1994, the Palestinian Authority has always had open communications with Israel. These open communications have remained in spite of the political differences between both sides, differences that have only grown wider since last January’s announcement of the Deal of the Century. During his interview with Majalla, El Masry stated that he did not think that there was a political element when it came to cooperation between both sides: “Cooperation is essentially a based on security and humanitarianism, and we have not seen any differences with regards to those aspects, even after US President Donald Trump declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2018.”
Furthermore, we have seen both sides work together during times of crisis. For instance, the Palestinian Authority once sent members of its civil defences to help put out huge fires in the northern Israeli region. Israel has also helped the Palestinian Authority reinforce its security within the West Bank. Moreover, in 2017 there was an announcement of upcoming joint military exercises between both sides and Jordan. The aim of these exercises was to ensure that all sides are prepared in the case of any future natural disasters.
Antiseptics being distributed to Palestinian passers-by (Majalla)
FILLING THE VACUUM
Many world leaders and notable individuals have spoken of Israel and the Palestinian peoples’efforts to coordinate in the fight against the Coronavirus. Among such individuals was the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay E. Mladenov who recently tweeted: “Today I spoke to my US, Russia, EU colleagues of the Middle East Quartet. We discussed how to revive meaningful peace negotiations towards the goal of two states. I briefed them on UN efforts to support excellent Israeli Palestinian cooperation against COVID19.”
Moreover, a number of Israeli news websites have stated that many world leaders have separately contacted Israeli and Palestinian leadership, welcoming their efforts of cooperation. According to one article published in the Times of Israel’s website, many Israeli political and security figures have been increasing contacts with the Palestinian Authority for the past few weeks in order to discuss ways of dealing with the Coronavirus. This is a great contrast to previous periods when both sides would not even discuss issues pertaining to their conflict, as a matter of fact, some reports indicate that both sets of leaderships are now in constant communication to find ways of dealing with the virus.
An official source in the PLO Committee for Interaction with Israeli Society, who preferred to not give his name to Majalla, said that times like these help reduce disputes between the two parties on both official and societal levels. This is because cooperation is now compulsory due to the reality that they find themselves in. It is this reality that has led both sides to putting political differences aside. “We can use this time as an opportunity to fill the vacuum left by the lack of political dialogue with talks of humanitarian talks that can unite both people. The talks can result in the provision of things needed most such as medical/nutritional needs, security and stability.”The anonymous source also said that any talks with the Israelis would need to be based on the recognition and preservation of Palestinian rights and principles, without that pillar no collaborative efforts can take place or continue. The source would go on to say that there are many parts of the Israeli political establishment, especially the parties that are more moderate when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, who can be relied on to convey the Palestinians’concerns. He also notes that the Committee is hard at work meeting with Israeli officials, and during said meetings, they always emphasis the suffering and concerns of the Palestinians.
Political analyst Islam Atallah seemed less optimistic on the prospects of political reconciliation between both parties. In an interview with Majalla he said that cooperation on societal and security issues between the two parties does not often result in cooperation in the wider international political spectrum.
Political Analyst Islam Attalla (Majalla)
POPULAR CALLS FOR COOPERATION
Ever since this crisis started, there have been few voices on the Palestinian side rejecting the prospects of cooperation. What’s even more extraodinary is the fact that even members of Hamas have backed down from their anti-reconciliation rhetoric. Al Masry states that this silence from Hamas is another example of support for cooperation. As previously stated this is a disease that doesn’t discriminate, furthermore the Palestinian health system is weak and could use the support from any external party that has efficient healthcare capabilities.
According to a recent poll conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research, 2/3 of Palestinian residents support collaboration between Israel and Palestinians in tackling the Coronavirus. The poll was conducted on hundreds of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, furthermore respondents were chosen according to the typical techniques of random geographical selection, in which the margin of statistical error is less than 4 per cent.
Majalla also spoke to several Palestinians living in both Hamas and PA administered regions, respectively and opinions on cooperation varied. Some believed that collaboration on the Coronavirus crisis will lead to further political synergy between both sides, this in turn will increase chances of peace between both nations even beyond the pandemic period. Others meanwhile felt that Israeli policies that impact Palestinian human rights will come in the way of any future peace process.
Twenty-two-year old Hani Murad is a student who lives in the southern region of the Gaza Strip and studies English in one of the local universities. He states that he has been observing Israeli public attitudes toward Palestinian lands since the beginning of the crisis. He further said that any peace process would require the Israeli citizens to be on board with the idea.
Nihal Ibrahim is a young woman living in Ramallah and works for one of the civil society institutions. She notes that tensions between Palestinians and Israelis have simmered down recently. However, many grassroots Palestinians are still uneasy with the idea of adapting and living with Israelis.
Beach in Gaza deserted due to the Coronavirus pandemic (Majalla)
WHAT ABOUT THE GAZA STRIP?
The Gaza Strip is a difficult topic to address for a number of reasons. For one thing, the region is controlled by the Islamist resistance movement Hamas, which rejects the idea of Israeli statehood altogether. Furthermore, the group has conducted many military attacks on Israel in the past decade or so. Another reason that makes reconcilation between the Gaza Strip and Israel difficult is the presence of a military blockade between them which the latter controls. This blockade ensures that only individuals with special permits are allowed to move through the border, this contrasts with the border between Israel and the West Bank where movement of people is much easier. The blockade started in 2006 after Hamas kidnapped an Israeli soldier from one of the military posts situated at the border. The increased Fatah-Hamas tensions since 2007 have resulted in a political crisis which in turn led to continued Fatah rule in the West Bank and a Hamas takeover in the Gaza Strip. Since then the Gaza Strip has been further seculuded from both Palestinian and Israeli leadership.
In spite of these difficulties, there is a glimmer of hope of talks between Israel and Hamas. Israel recently allowed the entry of medical and monetary aid to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hamas’s Gaza leader, Yahya Al-Sinwar, recently appeared live on the local Al-Aqsa satellite channel said that there’s am initiative to start negotiations with Israel on the subject of Israeli soldiers that are held hostage in Gaza. This, of course, is one of the most complex issues of the ongoing disputes between Israel and Hamas. He also said that both sides can potentially do a prisoner exchange, and he noted that Israel already takes a humintarian stance with regards to prisioners. This is because Israel releases Palestinian prisoners who are sick, elderly or women, as such Al-Sinwar said a partial prisoner exchange would be possible on such a basis. He did, nevertheless, leave an ominous message in the interview stating that “the Hebrew state would have to pay a hefty price for such a prisoner exchange”, and he did not specify what he meant by that. If a prisoner exchange goes without a hitch, then we might witness a resurgence of popularity for Hamas in Gaza and negative sentiments towards Israel might also fall.