First published by the Middle East Monitor on 24/3/2020
The US and Israel, as well as its supporters, seek to deny the Palestinians their rights to freedom, justice and equality by claiming that the people are not ready for statehood; that they have not as yet built their institutions that would allow them to govern themselves. However, in the face of the current coronavirus pandemic, the Palestinian institutions have proven themselves to be capable of dealing with a crisis that many developed countries have failed to face up to.
At the time of writing, there had been no deaths in the Palestinian areas and the number of people infected with the virus stood at 59, with 17 having recovered. Most of the patients are in Bethlehem, where the first case was discovered. Since the first seven cases were announced on 5 March, the number of confirmed patients rose to 20, all of whom are Palestinian residents of the city in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian Authority moved quickly to place the city under lockdown in an attempt to contain the virus.
Of those 20 cases, 16 were quarantined in the Angel Hotel, along with 15 American tourists who, according to the PA, are believed to have come into contact with those carrying the virus. The Palestinians gave generously to those in quarantine, prompting much gratitude from the Americans isolated with them. “Thank you to all of the Palestinian community of Beit Jala for the love and kindness that you have shown we Americans during our stay at the Angel Hotel!” wrote one alongside a photo of a fried chicken meal from a popular local restaurant.
Gaza had thus far escaped the pandemic while fears were raised that should the virus cross into the enclave, either from Israel or Egypt, then the health sector would not be able to cope. Two Palestinians were tested recently, though, and found to have the virus. They had returned from a trip to Pakistan and were immediately placed in quarantine upon entry at the Rafah Crossing, reducing fears that they could spread the virus to others in the overcrowded, besieged Strip.
Across the nominal border, Israel had 1,238 cases and one death. In his most recent move, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a one-week lockdown in the country. The exceptions were pharmacies, grocery stores and petrol stations.
There has been no clear announcement of any cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians to control the spread of the virus, although the Jerusalem Post reported that a joint committee had been established. The PA then announced that Palestinian labourers working in Israel would have to spend one month on the Israeli side before returning rather than make the journey twice daily. This would require their employers to provide them with accommodation and food.
However, images of a Palestinian worker with a high temperature who the Israeli authorities literally dumped at a checkpoint near Nablus have highlighted the value that Israel places on Palestinian lives.
Concerns have grown about Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The PA has no access to them and cannot check on their well-being in the current crisis. Last week, the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society NGO said that prison canteens have stopped supplying detainees with 140 items, including hygiene and cleaning products, a necessity with the coronavirus spreading around the world and personal cleanliness being paramount. The prison authorities have also cancelled medical check-ups for prisoners, except for those with a fever.
According to Qadri Abu Bakr, the head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs, “The prison service still refuses to offer any protection or disinfection supplies to protect prisoners from coronavirus.”
The PA is also somewhat helpless to deal with the virus in occupied East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hold Jerusalem ID cards and pay taxes for services that should be provided by Israel. The occupying power has continued to raid Al-Esawiyya neighbourhood despite the virus outbreak but has also tried to isolate areas of East Jerusalem that have been placed outside the city by the Apartheid Wall. Their most recent attempt was carried out via the closure of the checkpoint into and out of Shufa’at refugee camp. The other areas of East Jerusalem within Jerusalem’s municipal boundary but on the “wrong” side of the wall are the areas of Kufr Akkab and Qalandia. Israel is again trying to restrict entry from these areas despite the residents carrying Jerusalem ID cards. Moreover, the PA has not been able to make its own decisions about exit and entry points from Egypt and Jordan as Israel has the last say in these matters.
When it comes to communication, both with the Palestinian public and beyond, the PA holds daily press briefings that are normally delivered by the government’s official spokesman, Ibrahim Milhem. The briefings have been statesmanlike, providing a daily update on statistics related to the coronavirus outbreak and allowing journalists to question the PA’s approach. This has been a marked improvement in delivering the authority’s message at a crucial time.
Around the world, PLO missions have tried to keep in touch with Palestinians living abroad so as, at the very least, provide an address that Palestinians in difficulty can turn to. The PLO’s Head of Mission in London issued statements clarifying the situation when Palestinians in the Diaspora have contracted the virus and reporting on their condition.
Building Palestinian institutions for future statehood was a major objective of the Middle East Quartet when it was established and driven by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He worked particularly effectively to build these when PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was in post.
While the PA’s recent dealing with the coronavirus has been impressive, it has been hampered by the Israeli occupation as it has not been able to make decisions that affect the lives of Palestinians under Israel’s control, including those in East Jerusalem and in prison. It has demonstrated that the Palestinian institutions are more than capable of functioning independently, as they would in an independent state. The simple truth of the matter is that the US and Israel, as well as its supporters, just want the PA to absolve Israel of responsibility for the occupation by acting as its public face when it comes to security and dealing with crises, but never to be sufficiently ready for statehood because that would embolden those who want to give official recognition to the State of Palestine.