August 18, 2020 | Policy Brief

COVID-19: Israel and the Palestinians

August 18, 2020 | Policy Brief

COVID-19: Israel and the Palestinians

Though Israel was one of the first countries to impose aggressive measures to counter the COVID-19 crisis, lifting restrictions prematurely has sent the country into a second wave of infection. Meanwhile, deficient coordination between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel has hampered efforts to battle COVID-19 in the West Bank. The Gaza Strip, however, has remained relatively insulated from the global pandemic thanks to enhanced border controls imposed by Israel.

Situation Overview

As of August 18, Israel has reported 95,264 confirmed cases and 698 deaths. Desperate to revive its flagging economy, Israel eased social distancing restrictions, including by fully opening schools in late May. Siegal Sadetzki, Israel’s director of public health, resigned after complaining that her professional recommendations were being ignored. Ronni Gamzu became the country’s new coronavirus czar and has enlisted the military to administer testing and handle contact tracing.

The West Bank and Gaza, meanwhile, have reported 17,306 cases and 113 deaths. Just 91 of those cases and one of those deaths were in Gaza, where Hamas has established quarantine centers for the few people entering the territory. Thanks to a low infection rate, Gaza’s schools resumed in August with COVID-19 protocols. Also in August, Egypt temporarily reopened the Rafah crossing point to allow people stranded on either side of the border to travel. This does not appear to have had an impact on the infection rate.

Hebron and East Jerusalem have been the main epicenters for infections among Palestinians. Hebron, which suffered from a spike in June and July, has many residents who work in Israel. COVID-19 has hit East Jerusalem hard recently, possibly because of large gatherings. In response, PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has called for lockdowns.

The tensions between the PA and Israel have complicated coronavirus responses. In May, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas severed ties with Israel over concerns the Jewish state would declare sovereignty over parts of the West Bank – land the Palestinians claim for a future state. The breakdown in relations has hampered coordination. Earlier this year, the PA refused two shipments of medical equipment from the United Arab Emirates because they were coordinated with Israel. After last week’s announcement of normalization, the PA is unlikely to accept any UAE assistance in the near future.

COVID-19 in the Greater Middle East

Country Cases Deaths
Iran 347,835 19,972
Saudi Arabia 301,323 3,470
Pakistan 289,832 6,190
Turkey 250,542 5,996
Iraq 180,133 5,954
Qatar 115,368 193
Egypt 96,590 5,173
Israel 95,264 698
Oman 83,418 597
Kuwait 77,470 505
UAE 64,541 364
Bahrain 47,185 174
Morocco 43,558 681
Algeria 39,025 1,379
Afghanistan 37,599 1,375
W. Bank & Gaza 17,306 113
Sudan 12,485 805
Lebanon 9,337 105
Libya 8,579 157
Somalia 3,257 93
Tunisia 2,185 56
Yemen 1,882 535
Syria 1,764 68
Jordan 1,398 11

Source: JHU Coronavirus Resource Center
Data current as of 11:15 AM, August 18, 2020.

Implications

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now under fire in Israel for allowing a second wave. This has destabilized his government and sapped his political support. Thousands of Israelis have taken to the streets in protest. Tensions within the Israeli coalition have prevented the new government from passing a budget, which could lead to a dreaded fourth round of elections in less than two years.

Restrictions on commerce and recreation in the West Bank, though necessary for stopping the spread of COVID-19, have been extremely unpopular. They have exacerbated tensions between local leaders and the central Palestinian government. Human rights activists have accused the PA of using the pandemic as an excuse to further curb civil rights. Moreover, the perennially cash-strapped PA is ill-equipped to withstand the crisis and is experiencing budgetary difficulties. Gaza is also experiencing budgetary challenges. However, its relative success in combatting the virus, due in large part to the enclave’s isolation, could bolster Hamas’ reputation.

What to Watch For

The diminishing likelihood that Israel will extend sovereignty over parts of the West Bank could improve the Israeli-Palestinian coordination necessary for combatting the virus. However, budgetary constraints from Abbas’ refusal to accept Israeli tax transfers, along with popular unrest stemming from unpopular lockdown measures and worsening infection rates, could destabilize an already struggling PA. The Israeli government is already on high alert for explosive balloons and rockets out of Gaza. The Israelis must now watch for signs of instability in the West Bank while laboring to keep a lid on frustrations at home.

David May is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Cameron Vega is an intern. They both contribute to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David, Cameron, and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @DavidSamuelMay. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

Issues:

COVID-19 Israel Palestinian Politics