Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the Face of the Coronavirus Crisis

 

By Michael Milshtein​ | April 17, 2020



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The Coronavirus crisis outbreak came at a particularly sensitive time in Israeli-Palestinian Authority relations.  On the eve of the crisis, tensions between the two sides worsened against the backdrop of ongoing crisis in the diplomatic realm, heightened discourse in Israel regarding future annexation of territory in the West Bank, mutual economic boycotts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and outbreaks from time to time of waves of terrorism. These currents brought to the surface the question whether a broad wave of violence in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) was liable to occur that would challenge the prevailing state of affairs.


The Coronavirus crisis creates both challenges and opportunities in regard to the relationship between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. On one hand, the crisis has sharpened old tensions and created new challenges, but on the other hand, has caused other old divisions to be pushed to the sidelines, enabling cooperation between Israel and Palestinians surrounding the shared threat, and could actually assist to create a new horizon 'in the aftermath' of Coronavirus


More than ever, the Coronavirus crisis demonstrates the close linkage between Israel and the Palestinians, and at the hub—the existential dependence of Palestinians on Israel in almost every domain, along with the economic element in the strategic stability domain in the West Bank.


To date, the Palestinian Authority has shown relative success in grappling with the Coronavirus threat. The number of Corona carriers detected is relatively low (in the vicinity of 290, with only two fatalities).  Preventative measures have been effective (including a full quarantine in Palestinian areas and establishment of isolation facilities and closure of the public spaces). There is very close collaboration with Israel on this topic. It is therefore not surprising  that a series of public opinion polls carried out in the West Bank in recent weeks found that 80-95% of the residents of the West Bank expressed full confidence in the way the Palestinian Authority is handling the Coronavirus crisis.


By contrast, similar to Israel, the economic crisis has hurt most branches of the economy, first and foremost approximately 120,000 laborers working in Israel (75% of whom returned to Authority areas and are unemployed now), as well as merchants and many industries that are dependent on Israeli buying power and marketing of their products to Israel. Against this backdrop, economic reports and public opinion polls report prominently the economic downturn in the Palestinian public's status - and particularly loss of income and collective buying power, paralleled by worsening tensions within the family unit and a rise in domestic violence.


If this was not enough, in recent weeks a number of foci of political tension have emerged between Israel and Palestinian Authority: Charges by senior officials in the Authority—first and foremost by Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, that Israel  is operating "for deliberate contagion and spread of Coronavirus on the West Bank and preventing the Palestinian government from treating the public; loaded public and political discourse, base on rumors claiming worsening of the situation of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons and possible scenarios of the spread of Coronavirus to the prisons (accompanied by demands by the Authority and Hamas that Israel release sick and elderly inmates and women and minors in Israeli custody); intensive measures by Israel to counter attempts by the Palestinian Authority to establish a presence in East Jerusalem (accompanied by arrest of senior Palestinian figures); and Palestinian apprehensions that establishment of a Unity Government in Israel would be accompanied by agreement to annex territory in the West Bank. 


Fragile realities embody complex challenges from Israel's standpoint and require Israel to act wisely, and in some cases to exercise flexibility on various issues.  First of all, Israel must preserve close civil and security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, and in this framework to assist the Authority as much as possible in self-defense measures, medical treatment and prevention of the spread of Coronavirus throughout Judea and Samaria. Beyond this, Israel and the Authority have a shared interest in maintaining the public order in Judea and Samaria - expressed in the exemption granted of late to Palestinian security machinery, allowing them to deploy and operate in several East Jerusalem neighborhoods beyond the Security Wall (first and foremost in the Kafr 'Aqab neighborhood in the northern sector of Jerusalem, in order to quell the rise in crime and inter-clan (Hamulas) struggles.


Another issue of utmost importance is the need to maintain economic stability in the Palestinian Authority. This rests on realization economics is a core element for strategic stability and prevention of security threats in this region.  In this framework, Israel should continue orderly transfer to the Palestinian Authority of taxes collected by Israel on behalf of the PA, which constitute a full half of the Palestinian Authority's budget -  primarily to ensure payment of salaries (even in part) of 160,000 civil servants, including 65,000 members of the Palestinian security forces.  It is also recommended that Israel curtail as much as possible punitive actions against the Palestinian Authority for the duration of the Coronavirus crisis, including offset of 'pay to slay' payments to families of terrorists (inmates, disabled and martyrs-sha'hids) Israel has deducted from the above Palestinian taxes it collects since 2018. 


Economic deterioration in the Palestinian Authority is liable to radiate negatively on the stability of the Palestinian government and increase the ranks of those Palestinians among the public engaged in violence. Most of the Palestinian public-at-large has recoiled so far from such a move due to the importance Palestinians as a whole assign preservation of the texture of their lives and understanding of the price that would be exacted from them should they again opt for widespread insurrection, as in the year 2000, however, erosion of the current situation could disrupt this behavioral pattern and old ways of thinking.  


On the other hand, Israel must rein-in potential threats from the Palestinian Authority. In this regard, it is imperative to put pressure on the Authority, including through direct talks with Palestinian agents as well as interactions with external players, with the objective of putting an end to malicious rumors that that Israel is deliberately spreading Coronavirus among the Palestinian public and prisoners in Israeli jails. The rumor mill is liable, over time, to trickle-down into Palestinian public consciousness and feed motivation for individuals and groups to promote resort to violence.


Beyond this, it would be advisable for Israel to open a channel by which it could try and influence Palestinian public consciousness. This could primarily be done by transmitting messages in the social media and through traditional communication channels, presenting to the Palestinian public (in Arabic, of course and through the auspices of official Israeli spokespersons) the full picture regarding the assistance Israel is providing parallel to refutation of rumors and warnings of the negative consequences that are liable to arise in response to a defiant stand vis-à-vis Israel.


In addition to addressing serious internal problems in all realms, today Israel needs to provide a rapid response to intensifying problems in the Palestinian arena that, in practice, constitute Israeli problems in every sense. Sensitive and wise Israeli conduct at the present time, building bridges of trust with the Palestinian leadership and public, can stabilize strategic realities on the West Bank, but also  pave the way for expansion of relations with the Palestinian Authority 'the day after', including forging a foundation for future renewal of diplomatic talks between the sides.