The Palestinians face coronavirus second wave

Medical workers affiliated with the Palestinian health ministry collect samples to test for the Covid-19 coronavirus in a mobile position in al-Azza Refugee Camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, on June 24, 2020 (Photo by Musa Al SHAER / AFP)


As most of the world has been struggling with the highly anticipated second wave of the coronavirus pandemic – including neighbouring Israel, as well as Australia – the West Bank has also become a significant global hotspot.

On July 4, the Palestinian Authority reported an all-time high of 528 new cases bringing the total active cases to 5,575 in the West Bank and 72 in Gaza.

With statistics showing hundreds of new cases every day over the past two weeks, the PA implemented a 5-day travel ban. The new travel restrictions ban all activities except emergencies, and all businesses except grocery stores and pharmacies. After another week of growth in cases, the PA extended the travel ban by 5 more days, on Tuesday, July 7.

The city of Hebron, the West Bank’s largest with a population of more than 215,000, has become the stand-alone epicentre of the virus within the West Bank. PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila described the situation in Hebron as “out of control.”

It is estimated that 82% of the active cases, 3,420 cases, in the West Bank and two-thirds of the virus deaths are from Hebron. In the past two weeks, there have been 19 new deaths, bringing the death toll to 38 people. There has only been one death in Gaza so far.

Some Palestinian Health experts have identified the strong social networks of Hebron as one of the main growth factors of the recent outbreak. Many communities in Hebron are composed of well-connected clans whose membership can include up to tens of thousands of people.

The Mayor of Hebron, Tayseer Abu Snaineh, claims there is no authority to impose punishment or enforce social distancing guidelines. “People celebrate, hug each other and eat together in this area with no restrictions,” he said.

Furthermore, summertime is wedding season in the West Bank. Similarly to the situation in Israel, there have been lots of weddings in the West Bank where thousands have been in attendance. Since communities in Hebron are so well connected, these large gatherings may become super-spreader events. In fact, many Hebronites try to invite as many people as possible to their weddings and “brag about how many people attend and how many sheep they slaughter to feed them,” according to  Palestinian health ministry official Ali Abed Rabu.

On Monday, July 6, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called for the leaders of the largest clans in the West Bank to intervene and prevent the further spread of the virus. He also said that 82% of infected people in the West Bank have contracted the virus from either a wedding or a funeral.

Other causes of the spike are an overall neglect of social distancing and mask-wearing.

PA officials also trace back the growth of cases in Hebron to the movement of people across the border with Israel. Nearly 50,000 Palestinians work in Israel and nearly 270,000 residents of Israel enter the West Bank daily. Palestinian health officials claim that the first cases of the second wave of the coronavirus may have come from Palestinians crossing the border for work.

Israeli academic Dr. Eyal Zisser notes the interconnections between Israeli populations, especially Arab Israelis, and the Palestinians of the West Bank, which contributed to the Palestinian spike in cases just as Israel also experienced a second wave:

It appears the infection outbreak in Jaffa, which was reported on a month ago, led to the spread of the virus to Bedouin population centres in the Negev Desert, which then became one of the more significant hot zones in Israel. From there, the virus spread to the Mount Hebron region and then to Hebron, Ramallah and even Nablus and its environs.  From there, it spread to the villages and towns in the Triangle region (Wadi Ara) on the Israeli side of the Green Line.

He goes on to say, “these corona routes also inform us that the Green Line, which many in Israel and abroad view as some sort of official boundary, has essentially been erased and doesn’t exist in actuality. Not just because of the settlement enterprise, but also because Arab Israelis and Palestinians are voting with their feet in favour of one open space for familial and commercial relations.”

The Palestinian health sector only has 350 ventilators, 35 of which are in Hebron, for a population of more than 2.5 million people, which would intensify the impact of any widespread outbreak.

As always in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, there is political controversy as well. To further slow the spread of the virus, the PA is seeking to establish coronavirus checkpoints in areas B and C of the West Bank, the areas under Israeli security control, as well as in area A, which contains the major Palestinian towns which are under Palestinian civil and security control. However, the PA cut off almost all security contacts with the IDF in May to protest Israeli plans to extend sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, which has made any such coordination very difficult. PA Prime Minister Shtayyeh claims that Israel is not permitting the PA to create barriers to isolate virus hotspots and that the PA is turning to UN agencies within the territory for help.

Aid from Israel

Over the course of the pandemic, the Israelis have offered significant amounts of aid to the Palestinians, despite PA President Abbas’ decision to cut all ties with Israel. According to the IDF’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), between June 21 and June 27 2,260 truckloads worth of supplies were transferred to the Gaza Strip. Specifically, 152 tons of medical supplies, 380 tons of agricultural products, and 9,255 tons of food were transferred through the Kerem Shalom Crossing.

A graphic from the COGAT twitter account

COGAT also notes that during the week of June 14, it coordinated 68 ambulance crossings and 16,891crossings for Palestinians over the border for humanitarian reasons.

Despite myths of the blockade between Israel and the Gaza Strip, the blockade has never included medicine and the IDF has coordinated the transfer of many truckloads of vital humanitarian aid.

Israeli aid to the Palestinian also extends to the medical sector. Palestinian coronavirus tests are being analyzed in Israeli labs, Palestinian health officials have received training in Israeli hospitals, Israelis have delivered tests to Gaza and the West Bank, and doctors on both sides have been sharing vital information.

In mid-March, the PA revealed that it had created a joint operations room with Israeli officials to combat the virus. According to PA government spokesman Ibrahim Milhem, “Our shared borders and relations do not leave room for hesitation to take severe measures and cooperate on the highest levels to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Israeli-Palestinian cooperation has also been praised by the United Nations. According to UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, “Israeli and Palestinian authorities are continuing to coordinate their responses closely and constructively, which is a major factor in the level of disease containment achieved so far.” Israel had “allowed the entry of critical supplies and equipment into Gaza: examples of critical supplies include swabs for collection of samples and other laboratory supplies required for COVID-19 testing, and Personal Protective Equipment to protect health workers.”

An Australian NGO offers help

Australian founded NGO Project Rozana has played an integral role in garnering international and Australian support for Palestinian COVID-19 concerns. Endorsed by the PA, the governments of Israel and Australia, the World Health Organization and the EU, Project Rozana was founded in 2016 with the goal of building up the Palestinian health care system with the support of Israeli expertise.

It has responded to the pandemic by launching a campaign to assist the Palestinian Authority in getting its hospital intensive-care units ready for COVID-19.

The $1.2 million fundraising campaign has two focuses: to raise money to purchase necessary medical equipment, such as ventilators, for COVID-19 treatment, and to encourage the sharing of vital learnings between Israeli and Palestinian scientists.

The founder and Chair of Project Rozana’s international board Ron Finkel has expressed grave concern about the current outbreak in the West Bank. He said that, “this is a moment for Australians to shine, and to demonstrate that it punches above its weight when it comes to helping Palestinians and Israelis bridge the divide between them through healthcare.”