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Israel is not united

Apr 29,2020 - Last updated at Apr 29,2020

The dramatic difference between coronavirus infections in Palestine and Israel demonstrates that a people well-practiced in lockdown under occupation are better prepared than those who impose lockdown. According to the global Internet tracking site, Worldometer, the number of cases in Palestine, including 17 in Gaza, on April 28 was 342 cases, with two deaths and 83 recoveries. By contrast, Israel had 15,489 cases, 203 deaths and 6,796 recoveries.

These figures are striking, as there are 6.9 million Palestinians, including Palestinian citizens of Israel, and 6.7 million Israeli Jews living in the land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. While cases among Palestinian citizens of Israel are included in Israeli figures they are in the low hundreds.

It is interesting to note that the largest number of cases among Palestinians living under Israeli occupation is in Jerusalem where there is some interaction between the Palestinian and Israeli communities.

Why is there such huge difference Palestinians and Israelis? The answer is timing and political considerations. The Palestinian Authority declared a national emergency on March 5 after the coronavirus broke out among staff at a hotel hosting Greek pilgrims visiting the West Bank town of Bethlehem. All foreign tourists were banned; schools universities, mosques and churches were closed. On March 18, as the number of Palestinian cases had risen to 44, Israeli Minister of Defence Naftali Bennett declared that 100,000 West Bank Palestinians with jobs in agriculture, health and building in Israel could continue to work if their employers provided accommodation for them for two months. On the same day, Israel imposed closure on the West Bank. Palestinian labourers who returned to the West Bank often brought the virus with them. On March 21, Gaza reported its first two cases, men who had been in Pakistan. They were quarantined at a special facility at Rafah when they entered the coastal strip via Egypt.

The Palestinian Authority administering the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza had no choice but to impose strict regimes and Palestinian citizens to abide by them. Palestine cannot afford to test for and treat thousands virus victims. Healthcare facilities in Palestine do not have the means to deal with them. As soon as tests were available, Palestinians relied on testing and tracking to keep down numbers of infections. The majority in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank came from workers and professionals who had contacts with Israelis.

Palestinian citizens of Israel, 20 per cent of its population, were largely on their own. The organisation that represents this community formed a national health committee, which called upon doctors and medical personnel to provide information to the public as Israel's initial instructions on how to respond to the pandemic were only in Hebrew. The organisation opened a hotline for small businesses and sought to help deal with rising unemployment. The Joint List, the coalition of Palestinian parties which won 15 seats in the 120 member parliament in the March poll, has repatriated Palestinian students studying abroad (including those in medicine) and is exerting pressure on the Israeli government to provide funds for Arab municipalities to fight the virus. The nationalist Balad party, which is a member of the Joint List, has raised funds to help struggling Palestinian families in both Israel and the West Bank.

Although the first virus case in Israel was confirmed on February 21 when a woman returned from an infected cruise ship anchored off Japan, the Israeli government did not take prompt action to avoid mass contagion. A 14-day quarantine was ordered for all who were returning to Israel from Japan or South Korea. Israel held its third election in less than a year on March 2, with special voting booths for those in quarantine. Israel began social distancing on March 11 by restricting numbers of people who could gather. On the 12th universities and schools closed. A national state of emergency was announced on March 19th. Israelis were confined to their homes unless accessing essential services, while public places and most shops and offices were closed. Israeli medical personnel complained that testing was too limited. On March 25, the government imposed fresh restrictions on movement. On April 12, Israelis were compelled to cover their noses and mouths when they left their homes. Health Minister Yaacov Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) rabbi, was partially blamed for the slow response to the virus and for failing to promote social-distancing. Litzman was ordered by his superior to shift to the Housing Ministry. Litzman has said he plans to resign once a new government is formed.

Interim Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hesitated to tackle the virus as early as he should as he was, and is, in a weak position and the election was looming. Neither he nor his political rival Benny Gantz have been able to form a government since the vote. While Gantz has agreed to take part in a national unity government, this has not yet become a reality. Furthermore, Netanyahu has relied for nearly a decade on Litzman to run the Health Ministry because he was the nominee of the powerful Haredi community's United Torah Judiaism parliamentary faction. Israel is not united but a country riven by rivalries between religious and secular Jews, leftists, rightists and moderates, and Jews of widely differing backgrounds and ethnicities.

Although, its coronavirus performance has lagged far behind the endeavours of both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, Israel brags that the numbers of its cases and fatalities are far lower than those of heavily infected European countries and the US, now the globe's epicentre of the pandemic. According to the Worldometer's reckoning Israel has 23 deaths per million citizens, placing it 40th in the world where the average is 26. According to a boastful comment by Mai La in the Times of Israel published on Monday, its tally is less than the lowest in the West where Denmark has 73, Germany 71, Canada 68, Norway 37 and Finland 34. There was no reference to the Palestinian performance, naturally. For many, if not most, Israelis Palestinians do not exist.

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