Can fight against COVID-19 unite Palestinians?

Despite a slight warming in relations between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas earlier this year, the two parties initially appeared to be pursuing separate paths in combatting COVID-19 outbreaks in the West Bank and Gaza.

al-monitor Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh attends an Eid al-Adha celebration, Gaza City, Gaza, Aug. 21, 2018. Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Apr 20, 2020

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The outbreak of COVID-19 in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the effort to contain it has presented an opportunity for Fatah and Hamas to unite in at least one respect. Despite the critical nature of the current situation, the years of mutual animosity and recrimination between the factions is making cooperation difficult. As of April 20, the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center recorded 439 COVID-19 cases in Gaza and the West Bank, 3 deaths, and 71 recoveries.

After US President Donald Trump unveiled the details of his plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace on Jan. 28, the two organizations opened new channels of communication, finding themselves in agreement in their opposition to the plan. Of note, Hamas took part in a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, at the request of President Mahmoud Abbas, to look into mechanisms to respond to the plan. Hamas political bureau chief Ismail Haniyeh called on Abbas to put all differences aside under the circumstances, stressing that Hamas stood behind the “president’s firm positions.” Days later, however, a Hamas-PLO meeting scheduled for Feb. 3 in Gaza failed to materialize, with each side blaming the other.

Despite a 20-minute “warm” phone call on April 4 between Haniyeh and Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, tensions remain. PA spokesman Ibrahim Melhem, who revealed the conversation at an April 5 press conference, said that Haniyeh had stressed the need for the Ramallah government to follow up on the COVID-19 situation in Gaza, to which Shtayyeh reportedly responded, “The government is present in all its ministries, namely the Health Ministry to secure all medical supplies for our people in the homeland and diaspora.” Haniyeh, in turn, “praised the distinguished government performance headed by Shtayyeh and the preventive measures to confront the virus and spare the people great risks” and called for serious action to instill national unity.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, Melhem said, the Ramallah government had been operating in Gaza through projects funded by donor countries to provide aid to140,000 households, through the Ministry of Social Development. On April 1, the Ministry of Health in Ramallah announced the dispatch of 1,500 coronavirus test kits to Gaza. The Palestine-Turkish Friendship Hospital in Gaza City began operations in early April as part of the effort to to treat COVID-19 patients. 

Despite the recent contacts between Hamas leaders and the Fatah-led PA government in Ramallah, the division between them was evident when the first case of COVID-19 was announced in Bethlehem on March 5, prompting Abbas to implemented a 30-day state of emergency the same day. The Ramallah government also closed all educational facilities, tourist sites and religious institutions and barred unnecessary movement between governorates.

The above measures were not, however, implemented in Gaza, as Hamas authorities said the state of emergency did not apply there. Subsequently, Gaza moved to close schools on March 7. The Ministry of Interior began adopting preventive measures on March 11 at correctional and rehabilitation centers, police stations and points of service and crossings. On March 21, it shut down all event halls and markets and banned public celebrations.

After Gaza confirmed its first COVID-19 case on March 22, officials from the Interior and Health Ministries there began holding daily press conferences on the outbreak independent of the media briefings organized by the Ramallah-based government rather than providing the PA with information on a daily basis to allow the compilation of statistics through a single authority.

In an April 9 press statement to Al-Watan TV in Ramallah, Bassam al-Salhi, secretary-general of the Palestinian People's Party, called for the establishment of a unified emergency committee to deal with the epidemic in both Gaza and the West Bank. “If a [global pandemic] is not enough to unify the Palestinian people, what will it take to unite us?” Salhi asked.

Indeed, in some quarters, the acimony and accusations of obstinance by the opposing side continued. Abdullah Abdullah, a member of Fatah’s Revolutionary Council, told Al-Monitor, “The Palestinian issue has already witnessed a ‘political coronavirus,’ represented by Trump’s Mideast plan and before that the announcement of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. These two major milestones were not enough to achieve reconciliation because Hamas failed to rise to the challenge.”

He added, “There are no practical steps now to end the division, which comes to the detriment of everyone’s health, economic and social levels.”

Hani al-Masri, head of Masarat — Palestinian Center for Policy Research and Strategic Studies, called the ongoing contacts between the leaders in Gaza and Ramallah a “complete joke.” “The division has become de-facto,” he said. “The conflict between [Hamas and] the Palestinian Authority is over which side gets to have the upper hand, as several interests are at stake. On the ground, there is no progress toward reconciliation.”

Masri further remarked, “Warm calls are not the answer, but rather ‘warm coordination.’ It is of paramount importance that Gaza get the necessary aid and equipment for the health sector to prepare for what is coming.” 

Meanwhile, Mustafa al-Sawwaf, a political writer close to Hamas and former editor in chief of the newspaper Felesteen, told Al-Monitor, “The PA is responsible for the ongoing division, as it continues to cling to the Oslo Accords, and the ensuing security cooperation and recognition of Israel. This is at the core of the problem.”

He continued, “Palestinian unity has become a necessity in light of [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu’s efforts to annex the Jordan Valley, which confirms the need for the PA to relinquish the Oslo agreement. This is especially true since now it has nothing to hold on to after Trump’s announcement of the ‘deal of the century.’”

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