The spread of coronavirus in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially in the West Bank, has resulted in increased Israeli coordination with the Palestinian Authority in order to tackle the pandemic. There has been intensive work around the clock, direct Israeli intervention and a PA request for the Israeli army to erect barriers in areas it cannot reach to prevent Palestinians leaving cities, towns and refugee camps.
Israel has revealed constant telephone calls with the Palestinians, with civil and security coordination taking place. The Israelis fear that the PA is being damaged by the crisis due to its deteriorating health sector and economy. Its security agencies are also studying the impact that Covid-19 in the West Bank might have on Israel; the pandemic may leave behind serious effects on the balance of power.
Army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi has put together a special team to discuss the consequences of the pandemic. Supervised by Major General Tamir Heyman, the head of Military Intelligence, it assesses security data obtained by his officers. The intelligence assessment appreciates the PA’s efforts to confront the virus, while the PA and its institutions receive extensive help from Israel’s National Security Council in coordination with the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh has criticised Israel for helping to spread the virus and not doing enough to curb it among the Palestinians, but such comments by PA officials are disregarded by the security agencies. They view them as a way to distract the Palestinian public from other issues.
The Israeli security agencies want to use Covid-19 to strengthen their relations with their Palestinian counterparts and to increase the trust between them. There are concerns that such trust as exists now will be eroded if, as expected, Palestinian workers will not be allowed to return to their jobs within Israel and the illegal settlements post-pandemic, to be replaced by workers from China. If security coordination with the PA is to continue, these relations need to be strengthened now.
Israel believes that if the virus gets out of control among its own population, then it will spread in the occupied Palestinian territories, especially in the West Bank, because it is a single geographical area. The reverse is also true, but this is not being covered by the Israeli media, which is only concerned with what is going on inside Israel.
Of course, the Israelis know that if the PA fails to contain Covid-19, then there could be serious consequences for Israel. The virus doesn’t respect walls, barriers and borders. If the PA buckles under the strain of the pandemic, then it will pose a security threat to Israel, with a possible resumption of armed resistance to the occupation.
That is why the military and security agencies are watching the situation closely. With direct Israeli intervention a real possibility, the army is ready to establish field hospitals in the occupied West Bank and possibly even allow international forces to enter the territory to help in the crisis. These efforts are being coordinated with the PA by the Coordinator for Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Major General Kamil Abu Rokon.
It is important to note that there has been a significant reduction in resistance operations against Israel and the settlers (even while attacks by the settlers on Palestinians are increasing). The curfew and other isolation measures to combat Covid-19 have helped Israel in this respect.
The Israeli army, meanwhile, believes that its security operations involving the arrest of Palestinians, carries a serious risk of the virus being spread, even though such arrests are being made in Area A which is nominally under full Palestinian control. There is also concern that another intifada will erupt in the West Bank when the health crisis comes to an end, unless financial support is pumped into the Palestinian economy. Israel’s interest is clear; the money it provides as emergency aid to the PA can prevent a third popular uprising.
Furthermore, the threat to the PA economy if, as is likely, the authority is unable to pay the salaries of its employees, worries Israel. If the Palestinian security forces are not paid and not working, Israel will have to cover security in the West Bank itself.
The PA and Israel are facing Covid-19 as a common enemy, but the medical data shows that the number of Palestinian cases is relatively low. There are genuine fears, though, that the virus will spread from Israeli settlements to Palestinian residential areas.
Despite everything, there is a real feeling in Israel that the upside to the pandemic is that it presents a historic opportunity to restore relations between Israel and the Palestinians, leading to constructive discussions. The pandemic coordination at very senior levels may help to reduce tension, especially in the West Bank.
However, this could be threatened by any decision by Israel to prevent almost 120,000 Palestinian workers from returning to their jobs in Israel and in the settlements in the West Bank. That will have a serious impact on the Palestinians in terms of living standards, which will have a major knock-on impact on security. Israeli decision-makers understand this, and have so far refrained from imposing a total shutdown on the border with the West Bank and have not severed economic links.
On the face of it, the timing of the Covid-19 crisis could not have been worse, coming as it has on the tail of the “deal of the century”. Nevertheless, both sides seem to agree that it presents opportunities for future relations which were unthinkable just a few weeks ago.
Hence, it has become clear that it is in the interest of both the PA and Israel for the former to move towards managing its territories with the full support of the latter. If this happens, then the coronavirus pandemic will be the surprising catalyst for improved relations between apparently implacable enemies.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.