While Benny Gantz and Bibi Netanyahu are arguing over whether to immediately annex Area C to Israel, the Ministry of Health beat them to it and made a clear statement: “There will be no choice but to annex health care in the Palestinian Territories.” In other words, the Coronavirus has intertwined Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and the reality of this is not simple. With or without de jure annexation, de facto annexation already exists on all levels, rendering a division into two states impossible. As Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said to members of the Knesset Corona Committee (March 29, 2020), “My list of biggest concerns also includes the Palestinians – they and we are epidemiologically intertwined. We are trying to address this issue.” Bar Siman Tov is not the only one. Doctors and public health experts are repeating the same idea: “Epidemiologically, the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Israel are a single geographical unit.”
As expected, politicians ignore the new epidemiological reality created in the field, and continue to play with the idea of a division among Israel, the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. This partition is very convenient for the PA and Hamas because it guarantees their continued rule. In Israel, the division serves supporters of the greater Israel idea – annexation of the territories without taking responsibility for their residents. Yet the COVID-19 epidemic has revealed to us the full extent of the absurdity. The PA and Hamas are unable to take responsibility for the health of their citizens, just as they cannot for their livelihoods. According to international law, Israel remains solely responsible for the future of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both in terms of the economy and health. The 150,000 Palestinians who cross the checkpoints to work in Israel every morning in normal times are the PA’s economic oxygen. The Israeli health system currently provides the primary support for the shaky Palestinian health system.
Surprisingly, it is precisely those 150,000 Palestinian workers who have overnight become a hotbed of risk, as the PA describes them. It pictures them as lepers importing the virus from Israel into the PA territories. The Palestinian prime minister, to cover up his weakness, called on the Palestinian workers to return home and immediately go into isolation, even threatening to fine and punish anyone failing to do so. At the same time, the PA spokesperson mocked Netanyahu, who “faces criticism over the state’s neglect and mismanagement during the pandemic, while the State of Palestine demonstrates its capacities, discretion and proper management of the crisis.” And so, while the Israeli Ministry of Health recognizes the West Bank as epidemiologically inseparable from Israel, the PA puts up its own fence, ostensibly to prevent the virus from leaking into its territory via Palestinian workers.
And what is this “proper management” in the PA boast? Imposing curfew on cities and villages, and threatening workers who want to continue supporting their families. Equipped with 13 medical centers, 125 respirators and the same number of intensive care beds, no test kits, no medical staff trained to treat large numbers, the PA has no recourse but to seek a scapegoat, which it finds in the commuting Palestinian workers. In Israel, by contrast, where 83 patients are currently on respirators, there are 2,000 respirators and more on the way. The army, Mossad, Israel Security Agency, Rafael arms production and high-tech companies are mobilizing knowledge and resources, leveraging the best technology to overcome the pandemic. The number of tests in Israel is expected to reach 10,000 daily.
The PA is acting like a ship captain who doesn’t notice the approaching storm. Instead of adopting emergency plans to deal with a certain outbreak, training medical teams and demanding that Israel at once make available the needed equipment, the PA plays games with Israel while falsely accusing Palestinian workers who, forced to commute for their livelihoods, support the failed PA economy throughout the year and especially now.
In addition to bragging about its “proper management” of the crisis, the PA is spreading dangerous lies, as if Israel would grant financial compensation to any Palestinian worker forced to abandon his Israeli job and return to the West Bank. The head of the Palestinian trade unions, Shaher Saed, said in a TV interview to the Ma’an News Agency (March 30, 2020), ostensibly speaking on the basis of Israeli law: “Every Palestinian who works in Israel, and whose job has been terminated, receives 100 days of unemployment benefits at NIS 4,000 in addition to national insurance.” This claim is false and misleading. While a Palestinian worker who works in Israel or in the settlements is indeed insured by Israeli national insurance, this is limited only to on-the-job accidents and disability, as well as cases of employer bankruptcy. Palestinian workers are not entitled to unemployment benefits, child allowance, old-age allowance, disability allowance and income security—rights that national insurance grants to residents and citizens of Israel. The question is why union leaders tell such boldfaced lies? The answer lies in the weakness of the PA, which demands that workers abandon jobs in Israel but offers no safety net. There is no furlough pay, no grants and no social security allowance. West Bankers’ distrust of the PA is so deep that when it tried to enact a pension law in December 2018, vocal opposition and protests erupted. People do not trust a powerless, corrupt government that looks after itself and its associates.
Israel is facing a double humanitarian disaster. There is an unprecedented health crisis in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as extensive poverty, which will only deepen when the 150,000 Palestinian breadwinners who need to cross the checkpoints lose their jobs. The only way to gain on the approaching disaster is twofold: to “annex” the Palestinian health system, and to reopen Israeli jobs for Palestinian workers. The two solutions are interwoven. Israel will not be able to end its closure of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, allowing entry of Palestinian workers, if the pandemic is raging there. Only if Israel immediately approaches the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and itself as one epidemiological, demographic and geographic unit can it curb a humanitarian crisis and complete collapse.
Gantz and Netanyahu continue to debate the timing of imposing Israeli sovereignty on the West Bank, while annexation in terms of health, economy, and security is happening under their noses. The health union joins the customs union that was established in the 1994 Paris Accords, as well as what Abu Mazen dubbed the “sacred” security coordination. And so the question arises – what remains of the PA? If it cannot provide jobs, security and health, then what is the justification for its existence? The new reality is stronger than both the PA’s desire to survive and Netanyahu’s desire to annex territory minus the residents. The COVID-19 pandemic proves that the health and well-being of the Palestinians lie ultimately with Israel.
The sole remaining question, and one that Israel is trying to evade, concerns the civil rights of the Palestinian population: the right to move freely, the right to vote and be elected, the right to social security, health insurance and unemployment benefits, the right to free expression, the right to housing and education—all the rights that have been denied to Palestinians under 53 years of occupation. The annexation of the Palestinian health system, in order to combat COVID-19, without addressing these other rights, does not enable a proper relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Today, when both peoples have become a single epidemiological unit, it is clear to everyone that their fates are tied in a Gordian knot. What is needed now is for Israelis and Palestinians to become one consensual political unit in which all citizens enjoy full equality. This is the main lesson of the COVID-19 crisis, one that will accompany us from here on in.