As the coronavirus continues to infect people around the world, the Palestinian Authority has announced measures to try to curb its spread in the occupied Palestinian territories. President Mahmoud Abbas issued a decree for a state of emergency and has suspended the work of all PA ministries and institutions, apart from the Ministry of Health.
This was announced by Prime Minister Mohamed Ishtayyeh after a number of people, said to be foreign tourists, were quarantined after testing positive for the virus in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem. Several others have been tested, but none have come out as positive.
Without an effective vaccine, coronavirus continues to rattle governments seeking to deal with it. Why, though, did Abbas issue his decree with some very strange details without any real deliberations on the issue? Informed sources have reported that PA Minister of Health Mai Kila was not part of the discussions about the measures to be taken, although the heads of the various PA security agencies were involved. This suggests that the measures were not intended simply to curb the coronavirus.
According to Haaretz newspaper, the Israeli occupation authorities and the PA are working together to contain the outbreak in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, not least because the territories overlap and the movement of citizens cannot easily be suspended. However, Israel did not take the kind of measures decided upon by Abbas.
The Israeli government, for example, has only cancelled or restricted flights from and to the countries where the coronavirus is reported to be widespread. Locally, the Health Minister has advised people to stop shaking hands and cancel large public gatherings. Frequent handwashing and maintaining a clean environment are also advised. Unlike Abbas, Israel did not order the closure of schools and universities. Israeli kindergartens are still open.
As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases passed the 100,000 mark globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reminded all governments that the spread of the virus can be slowed significantly or even reversed through the implementation of robust containment and control activities. "China and other countries," said the WHO, "are demonstrating that the spread of the virus can be slowed and its impact reduced through the use of universally applicable actions, such as working across society to identify people who are sick, bringing them to care, following up on contacts, preparing hospitals and clinics to manage a surge in patients and training health workers."
I have spoken with several people who have been following the situation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and most of them believe that Abbas has politicised the coronavirus issue because he wants to curb the strike by Palestinian doctors in the occupied West Bank. He faced a dilemma after ignoring the reason for the strike, which was the abuse by Mai Kila of the doctors, and put himself in an embarrassing position when he insulted the doctors and described their strike as "despicable" as he called for it to end.
Abbas was criticised severely for this by several Palestinian factions and public figures, including officials from his own Fatah movement. Husam Khader, a Fatah MP from Nablus, said that Abbas's abuse of the doctors demonstrates that he is unfit to be president and called for him to apologise. Khader is very popular not only among those loyal to Fatah, but also among the majority of the Palestinians in Nablus who support his stance. How did Abbas respond? He had the MP arrested and sent to prison.
Furthermore, Abbas has been struggling against the popular Great Dawn Prayer demonstrations in different cities across the occupied West Bank, launched in protest against the Israeli violations of the sanctity of Islamic sites in occupied Jerusalem, especially Al-Aqsa Mosque. Several attempts by the PA have failed to end the mass attendances at communal dawn prayers, so Abbas has used the coronavirus as an excuse to order the closure of mosques, churches and other public spaces in several West Bank governorates.
Most importantly from his point of view, Abbas has taken the opportunity to damage the Gaza Strip even further. The people in Gaza have been suffering from official PA harassment since the start of the Israeli-led, Egyptian-supported siege in 2007. The PA also imposed its own sanctions on the Palestinians in the enclave in 2017, including salary cuts, an end to PA-funded transfers for urgent medical treatment, the end of payments for administrative fees to Gaza's ministries and a reduction and delays in the supply of medicines and medical disposables to Gaza's hospitals.
The Chief Editor of Al-Iqtisadia newspaper based in the Gaza Strip, Mohamed Abu Jayyab, criticised Abbas's decision to impose a one-month "suspension of life" on the besieged territory. "No one in Gaza has tested positive for the coronavirus," he explained, "so there is no need for such measures." Abu Jayyab believes that Abbas is using the virus as an excuse to appeal for more financial support from the international community "in the face of this new killer." The PA is in the middle of a very serious financial crisis.
Fellow journalist Hamada Hamada pointed out that while it is acceptable to implement countermeasures for the coronavirus, to impose a one-month suspension of national institutions when the Gaza Strip is free from the illness is illogical. "Due to the fear among people," he told me, "there should be the suspension of work for a few days until the specialists are able to prove the relative safety of the enclave."
If Abbas believes that suspending schools and universities will curb the spread of the coronavirus, what about the markets, coffee shops, wedding parties and suchlike? And if Israel hasn't closed its educational institutions, why has Abbas? It is becoming very obvious that he has enlisted the coronavirus in the battle against his political opponents.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.