Coronavirus, Israel and the Palestinians

An entrance to the Church of the Nativity is seen locked amid coronavirus precautions Bethlehem, March 11, 2020. (Mustafa Ganeyeh/Reuters). 

Update from AIJAC

03/20 #02

Like almost every Western country, Israel is dealing with the COVID-19 Coronavirus pandemic – with in excess of 100 cases now. Israel’s measures to meet this challenge have been among the toughest in the democratic world – including a decision to impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering the country from anywhere announced on Monday, and a decision yesterday to close almost all schools and universities.

Meanwhile, as AIJAC’s Ahron Shapiro reports, the Coronavirus crisis may be finally causing a break in Israel’s year-long political deadlock – with acting PM Netanyahu and opposition leader Benny Gantz reportedly holding discussions last night about a temporary, emergency, national unity government to deal with the health crisis.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas of the West Bank have seen more than 25 cases, particularly in Bethlehem and Jericho. Israel has provided test kits, training, and other medical supplies to the Palestinian health system to help with the outbreak.

This Update deals with the efforts of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to cope with the crisis, and especially their cooperation as a result.

We lead with an editorial from the Jerusalem Post about the crisis in Israel. It reviews Israel’s tough steps to limit entry of infected people, some shortcomings in Israel’s efforts so far, and the need to change strategies now from containment to mitigation. In addition, reflecting the growing consensus in Israel, the Post insists that the country needs a real government to implement additional tough steps, even if it is short-lived. For this good discussion of where Israel’s efforts are now and where they need to go – which may have relevance to Australia’s own efforts to deal with the crisis –  CLICK HERE.

Next up is Joshua Mitnik of the Christian Science Monitor on the unity and hope exhibited by the seamless and apolitical cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian health systems in dealing with this crisis. Mitnik notes that while such cooperation is not exactly new, it seems particularly important at a time when Israeli-Palestinian political relations are at a low ebb. He talks to numerous healthcare professionals on both sides about the reality and implications of this cooperation. For all the details, CLICK HERE.

Finally, veteran Palestinian affairs reporter Khaled Abu Toameh offers the other side of this cooperation – noting that while the Palestinian Authority is happy to take Israeli help to deal with the health crisis, this has not stopped its incitement and relentless demonisation of Israel. He takes particular issue with PA incitement on the inflammatory issue of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and on a recent revival of a long-standing, bizarre claim that Israelis release wild boars into the West Bank to terrorise Palestinians. For Abu Toameh’s contrasting and more pessimistic view on the implications of healthcare cooperation,  CLICK HERE.

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Editorial: With the coronavirus pandemic, the time for an emergency gov’t is now

Jerusalem Post, MARCH 12, 2020

PM Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with European leaders about coronavirus (MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Israel’s political quagmire and the global coronavirus pandemic have dovetailed into one chaotic situation with a potential death toll. More drastic steps need to be taken to help Israelis overcome the spread of the disease, but a thrice-interim government does not have the ability to do what it takes.

When the coronavirus crisis began, Israel took the most extreme steps in the Western world, stopping flights first from China, then more countries in Asia and then much of Europe. Self-quarantine orders have kept tens of thousands at home to ensure that they don’t spread the disease.

The plan looked like it was working. Up until a few days ago, there were no cases of unknown origin, meaning that there was no community transmission. And we still have no deaths from the virus.

But Israel passed 100 patients diagnosed with the novel coronavirus on Thursday. Containment was not a failure, because it was never really attainable, and Israel has done a good job in fighting the odds.

Now, we need to move from containment to mitigation. Major action needs to be taken.

Though this is not yet the Health Ministry’s stated policy, we see that more and more people with light cases of COVID-19 are left at home instead of taken to hospitals.

This might be needed when the number of sick people is overwhelming, but for now it seems like a mistake that can make the difference between quelling the contagion or spreading it.

Many, if not most of the carriers will be self-quarantined at home with family members who are not isolated in the next room. The home quarantine system is not fail-proof and is, in fact, quite difficult to adhere to perfectly. In the past few days, there have been multiple cases of contagion within a family, in which some members were supposed to be isolated and others were not. And if the children of someone with a light case of the disease go to meet friends, they can spread the virus to the many people with which they will come into close contact.

As long as it is possible, there should be a policy of separation between healthy and sick people. Otherwise, a far greater number of people will catch coronavirus, putting lives at risk.

Workers at a building at Sheba-Tel HaShomer Hospital which was converted into a coronavirus isolation unit, on February 20, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

 

If the Health Ministry has determined that the hospitals are overloaded and therefore light cases in low-risk populations do not need to be hospitalized – which is reasonable – then perhaps hostels, which are not being used anyway because tourism is essentially frozen, can be commandeered for this purpose.

The other issue is the backlog in testing for the virus. At least one diagnosed case was in someone who was hospitalized with pneumonia and, despite repeatedly saying he was at risk for COVID-19, was not tested.

Only after he was released from the hospital and then went back to the emergency room to demand – yet again – that he be tested, did they test him and find that he had coronavirus.

An MDA spokesman said that it can take up to 48 hours between a call to report symptoms and a test being administered – and people in quarantine have reported that it took longer. Then, it can take an additional 12-48 hours for results to come in.

Netanyahu said during Wednesday’s press conference that developing self-tests that can be administered at home is a priority for the government. This is a smart strategy, because we can’t keep people healthy without knowing who’s sick.

But we need more from our prime minister than press conferences and instructions to carry tissues, and cough into our elbows instead of our hands. Yes, we citizens must do what we can to be super-hygienic and quell the virus’s spread. But the government needs to be able to take massive action for its efforts to continue to be effective.

In order to do that, we need an actual government. Likud and Blue and White need to reach an agreement and quickly swear in a government; even if it may not last very long, that is what the country needs now. Our politicians have to put aside petty differences and realize that there is a global emergency that needs to be addressed – for the good of the people of Israel.


‘Something human’: Mideast fight against virus elicits rare unity

By Joshua Mitnick 

Christian Science Monitor, March 11, 2020

Israeli soldiers in protective gear at a West Bank checkpoint (Ronen Zvulon/Reuters). 

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL – For years, cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians has been in retreat, as peace negotiations became a remote prospect, governments focused on mutual demonization, and President Donald Trump cut support for the Palestinian Authority.

The coronavirus pandemic, however, has forced the sides to put recriminations on hold and instead work together to save lives.

Palestinian health care professionals have received training in Israeli hospitals, Israeli labs have analyzed Palestinian COVID-19 diagnostic tests, and doctors on both sides are sharing data.

“In the end, this isn’t something related to politics. This is something human, for the benefit of everyone,” says Mariana Alarja, chief manager of the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala, next to Bethlehem, where dozens of Palestinian coronavirus patients – including herself – are staying in quarantine.

As of Tuesday, 29 Palestinians in the West Bank have been diagnosed with the virus. An emergency was declared there last week. COVID-19 tests from Palestinians were sent to laboratories at Israel’s Sheba Hospital outside Tel Aviv for analysis because the facilities don’t exist in the West Bank. After years of Israeli military closures imposed on Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is enforcing its own closure to prevent the virus from spreading to other cities in the West Bank.

“A doctor should help everyone, regardless of race or nationality – whether the patient speaks English or Arabic,” says Ms. Alarja. “It doesn’t matter if you are an Israeli or a Palestinian, we all have to work on this very quickly.”

While any sign of normalization of ties with Israel carries a stigma among Palestinians, Zaher Nazzal, an epidemiologist at An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nablus, says the cooperation makes sense.

“This is normal. Whenever there’s a crisis that affects the people’s health, collaboration should be possible,” says Dr. Nazzal. “It doesn’t mean you put everything behind you, or that you agree with everything that’s happening on the ground.”

Intertwined populations

Since the first Israeli was diagnosed with the virus nearly three weeks ago, the outbreak in Israel is showing signs of spiking: The count stood at 77 on Wednesday, after jumping 50% Monday to Tuesday.

Israel has responded by requiring all arrivals at Ben Gurion Airport to self-quarantine for 14-days, and on Wednesday banned gatherings of more than 100 participants in closed spaces. Tens of thousands are already in isolation. The country has closed its border with Egypt, and both Israel and Jordan have restricted traffic on their border.

The Israeli and Palestinian populations, however, are far more intertwined. Yet, save for the coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces, cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has all but completely eroded over the past five or so years.

The collaboration on the coronavirus includes the health ministries of both governments along with the Israeli military liaison. Israel in recent days delivered 250 virus test kits to the West Bank and held training sessions for Palestinian medical workers on how to protect themselves. Israel’s Civil Administration, the military-run authority in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, promised to supply medical equipment and training as needed.

“Viruses and epidemics don’t stop at the border, and the spread of a dangerous virus in Judea and Samaria could endanger the health of Israeli citizens,” Dr. Dalia Basa, health coordinator for the military administration, said in a statement, using the biblical terms for the West Bank. Helping the PA fight the virus “is both in the interest of Israel and of the highest humanitarian significance.”

The departures terminal at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod, near Tel Aviv, March 8, 2020. Rami Amichay/Reuters

 

In practice, a border between Israel and the Palestinian territories barely exists. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian laborers from the West Bank commute daily to jobs in Israel. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem also cross Israeli checkpoints into the West Bank.

Because Israel and the Palestinian areas are effectively one territorial unit, the discrepancy between the two public health systems figures as a major challenge to containing the outbreak, say experts.

“Israel has the stronger economy and the stronger health system. It has not only a moral obligation but a self-interest to help all its neighbors. Given the seriousness of the crisis, there’s an urgent need for much greater cooperation,” says Gidon Bromberg, Israeli director of EcoPeace Middle East.

“Should the PA, Jordan, or Egypt request emergency hospital facilities to be set up,” he says, “Israel should be ready to respond like it responds to earthquakes in other parts of the world.”

Prior health cooperation

Public health threats have spurred cooperation among rivals on other maladies. A year ago, the “vaccine diplomacy” of international organizations prompted Afghanistan and Pakistan to introduce all-age polio vaccinations to travelers at their joint border to combat that virus in the violence-wracked region. And Cold War-era vaccine diplomacy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union helped eradicate polio and smallpox in much of the world.

Israelis and the Palestinians have cooperated on health before. Some 15 years ago, the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian governments established an organization to promote joint public health initiatives – the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance. The organization sponsored joint epidemiological training for doctors and nurses and promoted research collaboration and a regional network of public health professionals.

“On both sides, people on the ground really want to collaborate in spite of the political situation,” says Dr. Davidovitch. “It’s part of a shared goal of public health.”

A Palestinian policeman delivers supplies to hotel staff who tested positive to the coronavirus in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, March 6, 2020. (Majdi Mohammed/AP).

 

That goal was made more difficult to achieve after the Trump administration cut funding for joint Israeli-Palestinian research projects under a program that promotes Israeli collaboration with its Arab neighbors.

Ikram Salah, a Bethlehem resident who did doctoral studies under Dr. Davidovitch, had a joint epidemiological research project cut off by USAID under the Trump administration. She acknowledges that the public health infrastructure in the Palestinian territories is limited, but says it’s due to Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank.

“I’m always saying that disease knows no borders,” she says. “As a Palestinian, it’s hard to say, but we are not independent. We are dependent on Israel in all sectors.”

Concerns about Gaza

Despite the collaboration in the West Bank, however, there is serious uncertainty about what would happen should the pandemic spread to the Gaza Strip, where some 2 million Palestinians live under military blockade in cramped conditions with woefully inadequate infrastructure. Israel has no direct relations with Hamas, the Islamic military group that rules Gaza.

Though there is a hard border between Israel and Gaza, there’s still traffic back and forth. Military officials reportedly consider an outbreak there a nightmare scenario that will have humanitarian and geopolitical fallout for Israel, as much of the world still holds it responsible for the situation there despite its 2005 military withdrawal.

“Gaza is not sterile. It will enter Gaza at some point. It has to,” says an Israeli health official who asked not to be named. “It’s one of the most densely populated places in the world. It will burn through Gaza very quickly, I’m afraid.”

In such a scenario, the World Health Organization would have to intervene to help coordinate efforts between Israel, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. For the time being, however, Israel and the Palestinians are focusing on handling the West Bank.

“This is being done because we don’t have another choice. We have to work together,” says Dr. Itamar Grotto, associate director-general of Israel’s Health Ministry. “If you are looking for a positive effect of this event, you could point to this.”


Palestinians Revive Blood Libels as Israel Saves Their Lives

by Khaled Abu Toameh

Gatestone Institute, March 9, 2020

An Israeli ambulance, carrying a person with coronavirus symptoms, arrives at the infectious disease unit of Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, on February 28. (Photo by Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Israel is making a massive effort to help the Palestinians contain a coronavirus outbreak after several Palestinians in Bethlehem tested positive for the disease. In return, the Palestinians are continuing to spread blood libels against Israel and the Jews.

On March 5, the Israeli Defense Ministry announced that it has been working in the past two weeks to assist the Palestinian Authority in “curbing and preventing a coronavirus outbreak” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli authorities have transferred 250 coronavirus test kits from Israel to the Palestinians. Furthermore, joint training sessions for Israeli and Palestinian medical personnel were organized for the professional study of the virus, the protection of medical personnel, and the testing of patients suspected of being virus carriers.

“We will continue working to help the Palestinian authorities curb the spread of the virus, both as an Israeli interest and for humanitarian reasons,” said Israeli Civil Administration Health Coordinator Dalia Basa. “We will expand medical training to Palestinian personnel as much as possible, as well as the transfer of medical equipment to the Palestinian healthcare system.”

Earlier, the Israeli authorities announced that they had facilitated 105,495 humanitarian crossings for Palestinians to receive medical treatment in Israel during the last week of February.

Yet, rather than showing gratitude toward the Israeli authorities for their assistance, the Palestinian Authority and its media outlets and officials are continuing their campaign of incitement against Israel. They are also continuing to incite Palestinians against Israel by spreading lies about Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers. The incitement and lies promote anti-Semitism and even endanger the lives of Jews around the world.

As Israeli medical professionals were offering help to their Palestinian colleagues, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry issued a statement strongly condemning Israel for demolishing the houses of two Palestinian terrorists involved in the murder of Israeli teenager Rina Shnerb in the West Bank in August 2019. The Palestinians, in other words, are worried about the human rights of the terrorists and their families, and not those of the 17-year-old Jewish girl who was murdered during a family picnic for only one reason: being a Jew.

The ministry also denounced Israel’s “ongoing assault” on Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — a reference to a decision by Israeli authorities to ban a number of Palestinian activists involved in anti-Israel incitement from entering the holy site for one week.
The Israeli move comes in the context of efforts to stop Palestinian incitement against Jews who visit the Temple Mount.

A particularly inflammatory form of Palestinian incitement is the claim that Jews visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem amounts to them “violently storming” the holy site. 

Palestinian officials and activists have been waging a campaign against the visits by claiming, falsely, an old blood libel begun by the former Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al Husseini, an ally of Adolf Hitler: that the Jews are “violently storming” Al-Aqsa Mosque under protection from the Israeli Police. This incitement has led to several stabbing and shooting attacks against Israelis in the past few years.

On March 7, as Israel was helping dozens of foreign tourist groups leave Bethlehem after the discovery of 19 coronavirus cases in the city, the Palestinians revived yet another one of their old blood libels against Israel and Jews: the one claiming Israel uses wild boars to drive Palestinians out of their agricultural fields.

The blood libel appeared in the Palestinian daily Al-Quds under the title: “Herds of Wild Boars: The Settlers’ New Tool For Seizing Agricultural Lands.”

The report claimed that Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers have been releasing wild boars in parts of the West Bank to destroy Palestinian crops and intimidate Palestinian villagers and farmers.

One of the farmers, Fadel Tamimi, is quoted as saying, “Several residents saw trucks with Israeli license plates transferring wild boars to lands near the village of Der Nizam. Then the animals destroy our crops and cause physical harm to villagers.”

Another farmer, Munal Zeidan, said that the use of wild boars was part of a “scheme” by Jewish settlers.

Murad Ishtawi, head of the Palestinian Commission for Resisting the Wall (Israel’s security fence) and Settlements in the Northern West Bank, said, “Jewish settlers are waging a war of wild boars against [Palestinian] residents. They brought the wild boars here and released them in our fields to drive farmers away. This is a form of war.”

Needless to say, none of the Palestinians interviewed for the report managed to provide evidence that Israeli soldiers or settlers were behind the spread of wild boars in the West Bank. It is hard to find one Palestinian who does not carry a smartphone that he or she could use to document the alleged practices of the soldiers and settlers. It is worth noting that Palestinian villagers regularly document the actions of Israeli soldiers and settlers in the West Bank as part of a campaign to incite hatred against Israel.

Additionally, dozens of Palestinian and foreign photographers roam the streets of the West Bank every day to record various events there. If, as the Palestinians claim, the Jews have been using wild boars for the past two decades, why has no one snapped even one photo of an Israeli truck carrying the animals into Palestinian villages?

What about the hundreds of thousands of Jews living in the West Bank? How come they too have not been attacked by wild boars? And how are these wild boars able to distinguish between Arabs and Jews?

Another old Palestinian-made blood libel concerns rats in Jerusalem. In 2008, the Palestinian Authority’s official news agency, Wafa, claimed that Jewish settlers have been using rats to drive Arabs out of their homes in the Old City of Jerusalem. According to the report, “dozens of settlers have been converging on the alleyways and streets of the Old City carrying iron cages full of rats. They release the rats in the Old City.”

The Palestinian Government Press Office even held a press conference in Ramallah that year to further spread the fake story about the rats. At the press conference, Palestinian officials claimed the release of the rats in the Old City of Jerusalem was aimed at “increasing the suffering of the residents, turning their lives into a real tragedy and forcing them to leave their homes and city.”

The Palestinian officials forgot to mention that there are hundreds of Jewish families living in different parts of the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter, the Muslim Quarter and the Christian Quarter. Again, one wonders how these rats miraculously managed to target only Arabs.

By continuing to spread false reports and blood libels against Israel and Jews, particularly while Israel is working around the clock to save Palestinian lives from the coronavirus, the Palestinians are once again demonstrating how they repay those who assist them. Notably, it is this type of incitement that drives Palestinians to launch terror attacks against Israelis almost on a daily basis.

Israel is training Palestinian medical professionals to combat the spread of a dangerous disease at the very moment that Palestinian leaders are continuing to poison the hearts and minds of their people against the very people working to help them. While this sort of perverse Palestinian payback is nothing new, it nonetheless ought to interest anyone in the international community who is considering contributing to the Palestinian cause.

Khaled Abu Toameh, an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem, is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at Gatestone Institute.