Like nearly every country in the world, Israel has been hard hit by the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The Palestinians in the disputed territories have not been spared the effects either. Palestinian officials and many of Israel’s detractors have subsequently spread lies and misinformation suggesting that Israel is responsible for the virus and that it is in various ways denying medical care to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.
Cal State Stanislaus Professor Asad Abukhalil, tweeted, “Israel will—I am sure—have different medical procedures for Jews and non-Jews. Non-Jews will be put in mass prisons.”
The Human Rights NGO B’Tselem also made a bogus allegation that the IDF demolished a coronavirus treatment center built by Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said the building was an illegally built guard post.
Another specious report was spread by the university branch of J Street, which retweeted an article from the +972 Magazine titled, “Israel didn’t publish coronavirus guidance in Arabic — so Palestinians stepped in.” This lie was also repeated on live television by a South African BDS activist who claimed Israel only distributed information about the virus in Hebrew, which was immediately rebutted by an Israeli Arab appearing on the same program who said he had received instructions in Arabic.
Israel is working closely with Palestinian officials to contain a coronavirus outbreak that apparently began when 19 people in Bethlehem tested positive for the disease. Israel quickly provided 250 coronavirus test kits to the Palestinian Authority and began joint training sessions for Israeli and Palestinian medical personnel to study the virus, the protection of medical personnel, and the testing of patients suspected of being virus carriers.
COGAT is also providing Israeli health ministry guidelines on prevention and protection from the virus on its website and Arabic language social media pages. In addition, COVID-19 tests from Palestinians were sent to laboratories at Israel’s Sheba Hospital.
Contrary to a report in The Guardian asserting that Israel’s blockade of Gaza “has limited the import of medicines and other essential items,” medicine and surgical equipment has been flowing into Gaza. COGAT reported that in 2019, “800 trucks providing medicine and medical equipment had entered the Gaza Strip…an increase of more than 60 trucks compared to the year of 2018.”
Between March 15 and March 21, 2020, a total of 2,547 truckloads of goods entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel. This included 116 tanker trucks of fuel, 206 tons of medical supplies, 393 tons of agriculture products, 11,457 tons of food, and 48,667 tons of building materials (@cogatonline, March 22, 2020).
On March 10, 2020, COGAT coordinated the transfer of 20 tons of disinfectants and hundreds of coronavirus test kits. On March 20, 2020, alone, Israel delivered hundreds more test kits and 1,000 protective medical gear kits to Gaza. COGAT is also coordinating the delivery of thousands of masks and COVID-19 test kits donated by the World Health Organization for the West Bank and Gaza. On March 25, for example, more than 3,000 test kits and 50,000 masks were delivered to the PA.
The Palestinian Health Ministry also confirmed the receipt of test kits and medical equipment from Israel requested by medical personnel in Gaza. “Handling the coronavirus outbreak takes precedence over any political consideration, and without help from Israel, Gaza would be in a very difficult situation in the case of an outbreak,” said a ministry official.
Critics of Israel’s blockade of Gaza ignore the fact that Egypt controls one of the borders and could also be a transit point for medical supplies. It is not serving that purpose; moreover, no one is demanding that Egypt end its blockade. Meanwhile, Hamas, has made things more difficult by shutting down the Rafah pedestrian crossing into Egypt.
During the last week of February 2020, Israel permitted more than 100,000 Palestinians from the territories to enter Israel for medical treatment. Nearly 70,000 more were admitted the first week of March before the PA and Israel instituted quarantines limiting travel.
As of April 16, 2020, 291 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were diagnosed with the virus and two had died. The PA declared a state of emergency and, in cooperation with Israeli authorities, closed the city of Bethlehem. The PA also shut schools, tourist sites, churches and mosques.
“COGAT and the PA are cooperating closely and effectively to manage the outbreak of the virus,” said Col. Sharon Biton. Israeli and Palestinian health and security officials meet several times a day and created a joint “operations room” to coordinate their activities. Part of that coordination includes training sessions organized by Israel for Palestinian and Israeli medical professionals
“We will continue working to help the Palestinian authorities curb the spread of the virus, both as an Israeli interest and for humanitarian reasons,” said Israeli Civil Administration Health Coordinator Dalia Basa. “We will expand medical training to Palestinian personnel as much as possible, as well as the transfer of medical equipment to the Palestinian healthcare system.”
Even prior to the crisis, Israel was training Palestinian medical workers. In January 2020, five nurses from the Gaza Strip and 11 from the West Bank were invited to Israel for four days of medical training conducted by Israeli physicians. This was the first time nurses participated in the training program which, in the past, involved Palestinian doctors and ambulance drivers. Prior to the virus outbreak, Prof. Raphi Walden, president of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, arranged missions of Israeli doctors to Gaza nearly every month to perform advanced surgery and provide training to Gaza physicians.
A Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance was set up by the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian governments more than a decade ago to promote research collaboration and provide joint epidemiological training for doctors and nurses. In recent years, however, the Palestinians stopped participating.
The crisis has also been exacerbated by the decisions of Palestinian officials. U.S. taxpayer funding was cutoff, for example, because of the PA’s “pay-to-slay” policy. The PA spends approximately $14 million a month on salaries for terrorists in Israeli prisons and families of martyrs. Maurice Hirsch estimated that money could buy 387,143 coronavirus test kits or 465 low-cost MIT ventilators.
In addition, the PA has not lifted economic sanctions Mahmoud Abbas imposed on the residents of Gaza. “This farce must end immediately,” said Hassan Khraisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “The sanctions imposed by President Abbas since 2017 have exacerbated the suffering of the people. Abbas has not even issued any order to assist the Gaza Strip. Funds and medical assistance must be provided urgently to the Gaza Strip to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”
According to Bassam Tawil, “Abbas, like the rest of the Arab leaders, wants the Gaza Strip to be Israel’s problem alone. Abbas is undoubtedly looking forward to a day when he can hold Israel fully responsible for the outbreak of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip.” Tawil added, “He is also likely waiting for the UN and many in the international community to join him in blaming Israel and Jews for the spread of the pandemic among his people while ignoring his own responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.”
Still, Gaza has financial resources to meet the health crisis. UNRWA expected to spend more than $1 billion in Gaza between 2016-2019, with about $33 million allotted for health care in 2019. In 2017-2018, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) budgeted nearly $16 million, including $6.4 million for health services in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas has an annual budget of roughly $700 million but spends $100 million of that to construct terror tunnels, rockets and mortars.
Nevertheless, while the U.S. economy is in tatters and millions of Americans are suffering, supporters of the Palestinians started lobbying Congress to provide funding to fight the virus in the disputed territories. In April 2020, the Trump administration agreed to send $5 million to Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank to help them fight the coronavirus. About the same time, Israel provided a loan to the PA to help avert an economic and humanitarian crisis.
The lack of hospital facilities is also due to the PA’s objection to an American plan to build a hospital in northern Gaza in December 2019. The PA attacked the project as an Israeli plot to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and exacerbate friction with Hamas. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed the new hospital was “an Israeli intelligence base.” This followed an earlier decision to halt medical referrals for Palestinians to Israeli hospitals, depriving the people of world-class health care.
The BDS campaign has criticized contacts between Palestinians and Israelis and has pressured individuals and organizations inside and outside the territories to avoid any acts of “normalization.”An-Najah University epidemiologist Zaher Nazzal said, however, “Whenever there’s a crisis that affects the people’s health, collaboration should be possible.”
The PA does not see things the same way. In May 2020, the PA refused to accept 14 tons of medical supplies to fight the COVID-19 pandemic because it was delivered by the United Arab Emirates’ Etihad Airways through Israel. Palestinian health minister Mai Kaila said officials were upset the UAE failed to coordinate with them. Other sources said the Palestinians objected because the direct flight to Israel “constitutes a cover for normalization.”
On June 9, 2020, a second Etihad Airlines plane brought another shipment of medical supplies. Unlike the first flight, the Etihad logo and United Arab Emirates flag were visible on the plane. While the PA again complained, the supplies were to be transferred to the UN for distribution in the Gaza Strip.
The PA decision did not hurt Israel or deter the UAE from improving ties with Israel. It did, however, increase the risk to Palestinians of becoming infected and possibly dying of the coronavirus, and angered many people in the UAE. Prof. Abdul Khaleq Abdullah said the PA acted “out of spite” and “reflects political stupidity from a flabby leadership.” UAE political analyst Majed al-Raeesi tweeted: “Aid in the form of tons of medical supplies is not important. If the assistance was in the form of money/dollars, it wouldn’t have been rejected. May God help ordinary Palestinians against the thieves of the Palestinian Authority” (Khaled Abu Toameh, “UAE activists rail against Palestinians for rejecting medical supplies,” Jerusalem Post, May 23, 2020).
Meanwhile, despite expecting others to boycott Israel, the Palestinians have accepted aid directly from Israel to fight the pandemic. They also accepted supplies from Turkey that came through Israel.
The plight of Palestinians worsened when PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced his intention to withdraw from all agreements with Israel in response to Israel’s plan to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. One of those agreements involves coordination with Israel to allow Palestinians to seek medical care in Israel’s world-class hospitals. Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said Palestinians will now have to seek care in the PA or, if they live in Gaza, coordinate treatment with Egypt or the UN.
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