In just the last month alone, Israel transferred millions of shekels to the Palestinian Authority and has facilitated the entry of thousands of Palestinian workers into Israel so they can work. It has expedited the transfer of equipment to the Gaza Strip to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic there. Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and his Palestinian counterpart, Shukri Bishara, met to discuss the economic impact of the coronavirus on Israel and the Palestinians, and Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin spoke on the phone with P.A. head Mahmoud Abbas, during which they agreed to cooperate on combating the pandemic.
So it was a slap in Israel’s face when Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh not only falsely accused Israeli soldiers of trying to infect Palestinian civilians with COVID-19, but also tweeted that “the real weakness in our battle against #Covid19 is the Israeli occupation and all its policies that attempt to thwart our efforts to protect our people. We don’t accept Israeli guardianship over our measures. What is required is for Israel to leave us alone.”
Michael Milstein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, denied Shtayyeh’s false claims and told JNS that “every Palestinian office and organization operates in full coordination with Israel.”
So why is Shtayyeh inciting against the Jewish state at a time when he should be working towards bringing the two sides closer together?
According to Milstein, he is thinking about the day after Abbas. “While Shtayyeh is a member of the Fatah Central Committee, he aspires to more and is currently trying to crystallize his image,” he said. “Also, it is possible that he is trying to channel criticism inside the West Bank toward Israel.”
No matter the reason, Milstein believes that Israel should have responded in a much tougher manner because such words can very quickly lead to violence.
He thinks Israel needs to dispel rumors spread by Shtayyeh and others, and needs to spend more energy on disseminating the facts.
“The campaign to create awareness is very important,” he said.
A former adviser on Palestinian affairs in Israel’s Unit for Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), Milstein suggested that Israel reach out to the Palestinians as much as possible to deliver its message in clear Arabic and create channels of discourse with the Palestinian public to clarify that first, what they hear from people like Shtayyeh is fake news; and second, to explain the truth and show how broad the assistance is from Israel to the Palestinian arena.
And that assistance is indeed broad.
In an emailed statement to JNS, COGAT said it has been “working in conjunction with the P.A. and the international community to assist in the struggle against the spread of the coronavirus in Judea and Samaria, and the Gaza Strip.”
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As part of its efforts, COGAT “coordinated the entry of thousands of test kits for detection of the coronavirus, as well as thousands of protection kits for the use of medical teams and various disinfection materials.”
COGAT also coordinated training sessions by Israeli doctors for their Palestinian counterparts. “This aid paralleled the coordination of the crossing of dozens of trucks that delivered medical equipment, medicine and disinfection materials that various international organizations had donated,” it said.
‘Tight linkage between economy and security’
From the start of the outbreak of the virus, the merchandise crossings from Israel to the Palestinian territories, both in Gaza and Judea and Samaria have not been closed.
COGAT also emphasized that hundreds of Palestinian patients enter daily from the Gaza Strip, and Judea and Samaria, to receive life-saving medical treatment.
Milstein noted that there is full coordination with the P.A. in every aspect on security, economic and civil levels. “Israel knows that economic stability in the West Bank is the basic condition for strategic and security stability in that area, and Israel’s transition government is aware of the tight linkage between the economy and security in the West Bank,” he said.
COGAT acknowledged this as well. After the coronavirus outbreak in Bethlehem and an increase in the scope of Palestinians in quarantine, Israel decided, in coordination with the P.A., to impose a citywide closure. Later, the P.A. decided to impose its own closure throughout Judea and Samaria.
“Nevertheless,” COGAT said,” in an unprecedented and exceptional step, Israel approved, in coordination with the P.A., a two-month stay in Israel for tens of thousands of Palestinian workers in order that they not lose their places of employment and instead be able to continue supporting their families, despite the closure that was imposed on the territories.”
COGAT has also made available to the Palestinian public, through its Facebook page “Al-Munassiq” (the coordinator), the Israeli Ministry of Health guidelines on prevention and ways to deal with contagion and outbreak. The information, published in Arabic, is available to the entire Palestinian public in Judea and Samaria, as well as in the Gaza Strip.
Even the United Nations, almost always a critic of Israel and its policies, had good words for this cooperation.
Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, has praised the coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian authorities in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
‘Hamas doing almost nothing for the people of Gaza’
Unfortunately, Hamas has not expressed any gratitude. In fact, it has done only the opposite.
Last week, Hamas fired a rocket into Sderot in southern Israel, the first since the coronavirus outbreak began. Milstein assessed that this attack was a “signal” from the terrorist organization that it is in trouble. “Hamas wanted to promote a very limited, very contained signal towards Israel with one rocket,” he explained. “This is proof that when Hamas wants quiet in Gaza, it is quiet.
“However, if Hamas comes under massive pressure, if there is no broad assistance or if border crossings are not kept open, Israel may see more of these ‘signals,’ ” he said.
According to Milstein, “Hamas is doing almost nothing for the people of Gaza,” he said.
“All the money needed today to confront the coronavirus is going towards rockets,” he added. “Israel needs to explain to the people of Gaza that it can offer significant assistance, but right now, Hamas insists on promoting only its own terror interests.”
While Hamas says that Gaza is fine, no one there believes it, especially since there are at least 12 people who are, in fact, known to be infected. Gazans realize that the situation is probably much more serious, and there are likely many more people who are sick. If the virus spreads, Hamas has no means to confront this challenge.
Milstein believes that if there will be any popular or social unrest against Hamas, it will be channeled very quickly by Hamas or other terror organizations towards Israel, possibly leading to a new round of clashes or even a broader conflict.
“The situation in Gaza is the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “Things there could really explode.”
To counter that, he said, “we must show the world how much we help Gaza in every aspect.”
However, according to a report in Reuters, Israel on Wednesday linked any continued assistance it might offer for the Gaza Strip’s efforts against coronavirus to progress in its attempt to recover two Israeli soldiers killed during the 2014 war there and whose remains are being held hostage by Hamas.
“The moment there is talk of the humanitarian world in Gaza, Israel also has humanitarian needs, which are mainly the recovery of the fallen,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters. “And I think that we need to enter a broad dialogue about Gaza’s and our humanitarian needs. It would not be right to disconnect these things … and certainly, our hearts would be open to many things.”
According to COGAT, the State of Israel will continue to assist in the struggle against the spread of the coronavirus in the Palestinian territories by “offering aid, coordinating and conducting dialogue and optimal cooperation in conjunction with the Palestinian health system and the international community.”
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