Israel and the Palestinian Territories: between cooperation and division around the coronavirus

In Jerusalem, disinfection of the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray, on March 31, 2020. AFP / Emmanuel Dunand

Text by: Guilhem Delteil Follow

Between Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, there are three different governments. But despite their plurality, the authorities found themselves on a rapid and early response to the Covid-19. And while the Palestinian Authority announced this week that it will no longer be bound by the agreements signed with Israel in response to the new Israeli government's plan to annex parts of the West Bank after July 1, the pandemic has underscored the need for all the parties to cooperate to manage such a fragmented territory.


Read more

On Saturday February 29, at the entrance to Jericho, a Palestinian police patrol was checking the identities of those wishing to travel to the city. To foreign nationals, she asked for passports and visas. The presence of a patrol at this location is not unusual, but the intensity of the controls was. It is because of the coronavirus  " explained one of the police officers to RFI. Residents of Israel or the Palestinian Territories were allowed to enter, but newly arrived tourists could be barred from entering the city if they were nationals of countries most affected by the pandemic.

Jericho is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but this entity supposed to foreshadow a future Palestinian state does not manage the borders. These are controlled by Israel and to restrict access to the territory over which it exercises limited sovereignty, the Palestinian government can therefore only install roadblocks at the entrance to cities.

Quarantine and border closures

However, Israel also quickly put in place strict border controls. The country registered its first case of coronavirus on February 21  : a citizen returned from Japan who had been on a cruise on the Diamond Princess boat . A few hours later, 18 South Koreans returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land were diagnosed as carrying the virus. Israel then ordered 200 people who had been in contact with them to quarantine, and non-Israeli passengers on a flight from Seoul were prohibited from disembarking. As of February 24 , foreigners from seven Asian countries and territories were barred: China, Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea.

At the end of February , the entry ban was extended to passengers coming from Italy. Then a week later, to those arriving from Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Austria and France. On March 11 , quarantine became compulsory for anyone arriving from abroad. Then the borders were only opened to citizens and residents. It is a tough but vital decision,  " said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And even then, entry into Israel was increasingly tightly controlled: from April 12, quarantine was to take place in hotels under army control.

Be careful in Gaza

In the Gaza Strip , at the start of the year, residents looked at the news of the spread of the new coronavirus around the world in a rather detached manner. Many believed that the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed on the territory since 2007 protected them. But exchanges with the rest of the world, even if they are very limited, exist. Between January 1 and mid-February, local authorities had identified 140 people returning from China, mostly traders on business trips. And they quickly put in place quarantine measures.

From January , travelers returning from China had to isolate themselves at home and medical monitoring was provided from a distance. The occurrence of any uncontrolled case would cause the virus to spread very quickly and aggressively,  " Majdi Douheir, deputy director of primary health care in the Gaza Strip, told RFI. But the rigor of monitoring these instructions was questioned and in a territory as dense as the Gaza Strip, isolation at home did not prevent the risk of spreading the virus.

Little by little, quarantine centers were opened in schools or hotels in the enclave. Currently, anyone entering Gaza must spend 21 days there: a week longer than in most countries, as a precaution. 1,600 people are currently there. The first two cases from the Gaza Strip were detected on March 21: two men returning from Pakistan. And until mid-May, only 20 cases had been identified. But a new wave of returns this week brought the death toll to 49 patients, raising fears of a spread in a territory with a very fragile health system.

►Also listen again: Coronavirus: the Gaza Strip is getting ready

"Quasi-existential common interest"

In the West Bank, the first cases were identified on March 5: employees of a hotel near Bethlehem, where a group of Greek pilgrims had stayed. Both the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government wanted to quickly contain the spread. Bethlehem, city where the Christian tradition places the birth of Jesus, is a very tourist city. Close to Jerusalem, many of its inhabitants work on the other side of the separation wall. The same evening, the Israeli Ministry of Defense announced an isolation of the city , decided in coordination with the Palestinian government.

The confinement of Bethlehem was one of the first visible examples of cooperation between the different authorities. But this had started before: on February 23 , the Palestinian Minister of Health, Mai Al Kaila, spoke of contacts with Egypt, Jordan and Israel to deal with the threat of the virus. 
It was not just a common interest but a quasi-existential common interest  " notes Ofer Zalzberg, analyst at International Crisis Group.

Despite the separation barriers, despite the checkpoints limiting the movement of Palestinians, the two populations maintain many contacts. 400,000 Israelis live in the West Bank, in settlements sometimes close to Palestinian cities. According to the Israeli workers' defense organization Kav LaOved, around 70,000 Palestinians work in Israel and 30,000 in settlements in the West Bank.

By the end of 2019, Israel had also eased the blockade on the Gaza Strip a little, letting several thousand residents of the enclave enter its territory. The construction sector in Israel is largely based on a Palestinian workforce. Conversely, the Palestinian economy relies heavily on imports of Israeli products.

►Read also: Palestinian Territories: workers stranded because of the coronavirus

Civil and security cooperation

During the pandemic, Israel thus "  helped in the fight against the spread of the coronavirus in Judea and Samaria [name given by Israel to the West Bank, Editor's note] and in the Gaza Strip  ", affirms the branch of the army supervising the Israeli civil action in the Palestinian Territories. She points out that she has delivered thousands of screening test kits, protective equipment and medical equipment. The goods crossing points have not been closed,  " she continued in a statement sent to RFI.

But since Israel controls all the access points to the Palestinian territories, this cooperation on imports takes place on a daily basis, also outside the pandemic period. And the insistence made on the importation of humanitarian material within the framework of this health crisis "  had a dimension of communication  ", moderates a source within an international organization.

However, rarer acts have also taken place. On April 11, Israeli public television reported that Israeli doctors had trained Palestinian counterparts in the West Bank and Gaza for one day on how to manage Covid-19. This internship was coordinated by the Palestinian Authority, the government based in Ramallah and internationally recognized. But even more rarely, another internship would have concerned medical personnel from Gaza only. And for the latter, the Palestinian Authority claims to the Al Monitor site not to have been informed, suggesting that Israel has thus directly discussed with the ruling Hamas in Gaza, a movement which it nevertheless considers as terrorist.

Also noted from this pandemic period, Palestinian police intervened in two areas of Jerusalem to enforce confinement orders. Kufr Aqab and the Shouafat refugee camp are Palestinian neighborhoods, located east of the separation barrier, isolated from the rest of the city. But they are part of the Jerusalem municipality and are, for the Israelis, under their sovereignty: only the Israeli security forces are usually authorized to operate there. These Palestinian operations were carried out with the agreement of Israel.

A closed screening center

The three governments are facing areas of emptiness of sovereignty,  " says Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group. By being placed on the Palestinian side of the separation wall, Kufr Aqab and the Shouafat refugee camp are isolated and the presence of the Israeli police is more limited there than in the districts west of the wall. The Palestinian police, on the other hand, control the cities of the West Bank but not the rural areas between each agglomeration, under the control of the Israeli army. As for the landlocked Gaza Strip, it is also subject to Israeli or Egyptian decisions.

These areas of emptiness of sovereignty have attracted the government which is capable of exercising its power in each of them, even if it is in contradiction with the rules established between the parties. Faced with a health crisis, the common interest was that someone intervened, no matter who,  ”analyzes Ofer Zalzberg.

However, this cooperation was not only harmonious. On April 22, residents of Kufr Aqab thus once again called on the Palestinian police to enforce the rules of containment. The latter had already intervened on at least two occasions. But that day, Haaretz daily reveals , the Israeli authorities order him to turn around, this time refusing Palestinian intervention in a territory under their controlled but disputed, the Palestinians claiming East Jerusalem as the capital.

In mid-April , Israeli police also ordered the closure of a small clinic set up to screen for Covid-19 in a mosque in Silwan. Forty cases of the new coronavirus were then identified in this densely populated Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem, but residents denounced the lack of available tests. This screening center had therefore been created, in conjunction with the Palestinian Authority: the samples were to be analyzed in the West Bank. However, under the agreements between the two parties, Israel prohibits all Palestinian Authority activity in Jerusalem: the health facility has therefore been closed. The health crisis has not put an end to the battle for sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Invective and warnings

The management of Palestinian workers' crossings in Israel was also the occasion for a standoff between the two parties. During the confinement, tens of thousands of them were allowed to stay in Israel, without going home, "  so that they do not lose their jobs and are able to continue to support their families despite the closure imposed on the territories  ", explains the civilian branch of the Israeli army, adding that it is an"  unprecedented and exceptional initiative, coordinated with the Palestinian Authority  ".

But while Israel was more affected by the virus than the West Bank, the return of these workers was not always coordinated. In early April, 41 Palestinian workers at a Jerusalem poultry factory were identified as carrying the virus. However, among the first returnees, some were not immediately isolated. And the Palestinian Authority, claiming that it cannot afford to test all workers returning to the West Bank, has asked Israel to carry them out or pay for them.

The management of the pandemic has also given rise to arms deals between the parties. After a video of an Israeli soldier spitting on the ground on a street in Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, was posted on social media, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohamed Shtayyeh said that "  some soldiers are trying to spread the virus [ …]. It is the result of a racist education […]. They are people who want the death of others  . ” Shameful remarks, baseless and indefensible,  " replied the civilian branch of the Israeli army, for which "  a red line has been crossed  " as she recalled "  the enormous efforts that Israel is making in the face of the common challenge  ".

" Return to standards "

Real, Israeli-Palestinian cooperation in the face of the pandemic has remained trapped in political issues. It was presented by the Israelis as cooperation between equals and not between occupied and occupiers. This gives a certain legitimacy to relationships,  ”notes Ofer Zalzberg.

Conversely, Palestinian leaders needed to stand out publicly, says analyst at International Crisis Group: "The  more they cooperate openly, the more they have to increase public criticism of Israel to ensure to the population that this cooperation does not make the necessary compromises, that it does not end the conflict  . ”

The pandemic has not put an end to the balance of power. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Benyamin Netanyahu included in the government agreement he signed with his rival Benny Gantz the possibility of annexing entire sections of the West Bank from July 1. One of his Trump campaign promises to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In response, the President of the Palestinian Authority announced on Tuesday, May 19, "  no longer bound by the agreements signed with Israel and the United States ", and he ordered the end of security cooperation with his neighbor. As soon as the crisis is no longer existential,  judge Ofer Zalzberg, we see a return to norms which are shaped by short-term thinking . "

Newsletter Receive all international news directly in your mailbox

I subscribe

Follow all international news by downloading the RFI application


  • Coronavirus
  • Israel
  • Palestinian territories