Israel is preparing for the Corona tsunami that will wash over it in the coming weeks. The graph of new cases published daily shows an exponential increase, and with it a spiking level of anxiety. Prime Minister Netanyahu acts through emergency orders, mobilizing all possible resources in the war to halt the pandemic: the Israel Securities Authority, the Mossad, the military and the ministries of Defense, Health and the Treasury. His strategic goal is to flatten the curve.
But like many countries in the Western world, first and foremost the United States, Israel is caught with its pants down after cynically drying up its health budgets. For years, doctors cried out about the workloads, lack of beds and 24-hour shifts, but their cries fell on deaf ears. Government priorities were completely different, and now Israel is entering an existential war when emergency reserves are depleted and medical staffs exhausted.
Nevertheless, this enormous mobilization of resources, the isolation, inspection, massive procurement of equipment, and the electronic monitoring of patients as well as those around them are expected to bring results. The tighter the closure, the faster the epidemic will stop, as can be learned from the Chinese experience. Netanyahu appears nightly on our screens with new guidelines and non-stop boasting about Israel’s achievements, which supposedly set an example for the entire world. If you hit the remote at that very moment and move on to a Trump press conference, the similarity is stunning. But here is where the comparison ends. The American people do not enjoy a public medical system, Trump is at a loss, living in denial, continuing his political antics and passing the reins of the Corona struggle to his deputy Mike Pence, known for his skepticism toward science and doctors.
In Israel, the epidemic seems to be under control, even as forecasts for the number of cases and casualties are bleak. However, the Israeli strategy has an Achilles heel – the situations of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank and of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The imbalance between the Israeli and Palestinian health systems highlights for the first time their mutual impact and the close connection between Palestinians and Israelis, whose fates are intertwined.
The Arab Knesset members can be called “terrorists” for cheap political purposes, just as 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza can be hidden from the Israeli eye. However, when the coronavirus wave in Israel hits the West Bank and Gaza, a humanitarian catastrophe will erupt at Israel’s door. Many speak of a program to bring 60,000 Palestinian construction workers into Israel for two months, housing them at construction sites in substandard conditions. But more important is the fate of the families they would leave behind, shut down without any real support network and with a poor health system. What will happen if the epidemic mushrooms in Israel’s backyard during those two months? Will the workers remain at the Israeli sites, or will they return home at once to care for the people they love?
Just a few weeks ago, Abu Mazen condemned Palestinian doctors after their union struck over wages. His reaction highlights another aspect of a dilapidated health system – and why Palestinians mistrust the PA. It came to light that Hussam Khader, a parliament member from Abu Mazen’s Fatah party, was arrested under emergency regulations. The reason? He made a Facebook post criticizing Abu Mazen’s stance against the doctors, the very people who are supposed to fight on the front line against the epidemic.
If the Israeli government fears a collapse of the Israeli health system like the one that occurred in Italy, the Palestinian Authority has nothing to fear. Its health system is already devastated, and all that remains for it to do is to try and shut residents in their homes and prevent movement between Israel and the West Bank. However, according to Dr. Salah Haj Yahya of Physicians for Human Rights, “This closure will not prevent spread of the disease, and there exists no serious joint preparation to deal with the disease when it reaches the West Bank [as it already has – YBE]. The Israeli system does not recognize the situation of the Palestinian system, and is not assisting it in any way to cope with the crisis.” Surprisingly, even in the Palestinian Authority, the gloomy forecasts are being ignored, and there is no discussion about the health system’s readiness for a mass outbreak. As in Jordan, PA preventive measures include curfews, closures, and the closing of mosques. No one mentions the lack of hospital beds, intensive care rooms, and ventilators. The Palestinians can only hope that the epidemic passes over them. In Gaza the situation is different, because very few cases have been discovered and quarantined. There is a claim that this is one of the benefits of Israel’s long-term blockade of the Strip. But residents are afraid. They do not believe in Hamas, and it is clear to them that given their population density and poor sanitary conditions, a few cases will ignite a wildfire.
If you want to understand the reality of public health in Israel, it is not enough to hear the experts and epidemiologists. Look beyond the walls to the south and east. The efforts made by Israel to curb the pandemic will not bear fruit if it does not take into account the PA’s situation. The Corona virus knows no boundaries, nor does it recognize differences in race, religion or gender. It is blind to geography and demographics. The separation barrier is small potatoes. For it, human beings are merely comfortable hosts for incubation and reproduction. Today Israelis are well aware that their fate is linked to the fates of the Chinese, Italians and Americans. Night after night the media gives us reports from China, South Korea and Italy. In contrast, we don’t hear a word about the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
It is absurd to suppose that the Palestinian Authority can handle the pandemic alone, with an annual budget of $4 billion, compared to the Israeli budget of $100 billion. Some think this virus can be eradicated in Israel and that we’ll return to normal life while it rages through the West Bank and Gaza. The thought is not scientific, humane or practical. Anyone who tries to separate Israel from the Palestinians, whether to maintain the purity of the Jewish state and leave the Palestinians to manage their own desolation, or to annex the territories and create the “Greater Israel,” will soon discover the symbiotic reality created by the occupation. The blatant disregard for what is occurring in Gaza and the West Bank, including the attempt to “give” the Palestinians the Deal of the Century, cannot continue in the face of this reality. A small and deadly virus manages to do what both peoples failed to do with demonstrations, declarations, intifadas, agreements and international decisions. The fate of the Israelis and Palestinians is one fate, which is shared with all humanity.
There is a great contradiction in trying to separate, on the one hand, scientific progress, openness to the world, and international scientific collaborations and, on the other hand, disregard, bullying, and deliberate harm to 5 million people living in Israel’s backyard. The Palestinians did not choose this wretched, derelict backyard; it was forced upon them through 53 years of occupation.
We have reached the moment of truth not only for the fate of humanity, but especially for the fate of Israelis and Palestinians. Anyone who wants to be part of the global world cannot continue to deny Palestinian rights. The responsibility for what goes on in Israel’s backyard belongs solely to the government. The world will not judge Israel by the level of care it exhibits for its citizens and the scientific contribution of the Israel Institute for Biological Research. When the medical crisis erupts in the occupied Palestinian territories, the world will judge Israel according to the extent that it reached out to save lives.