Israel and Palestine: How COVID-19 is impacting peace and conflict

Israel and Palestine stand out among conflict-fragile countries during the COVID-19 outbreak for their high number of deaths per million and their temporary cooperation at the start of the pandemic. Although neither Israel nor Palestine responded publicly to the UN ceasefire call, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres lauded Israel and Palestine for their cooperation during the early part of the outbreak. Ultimately, this cooperation struggled to last and was unable to bring either party closer to a peaceful solution.

At the outset of the pandemic, COVID-19 posed both a challenge and an opportunity for the conflict. The virus outbreak occurred while Israel was still unable to form a coalition government and the legitimacy of the Israeli government was in decline. As the virus was rapidly spreading across Israel and Palestine, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas conducted “telephone diplomacy,” leading to a joint fight against the coronavirus. Many hoped this cooperation could ignite continuing negotiations towards establishing a peace solution for the conflict.

This relationship, however, quickly changed in June when Israel announced it would continue annexation plans in the West Bank, which is illegal under international law. In response, the Palestinian Authority made the decision to end cooperation and refuse tax revenue transfers from Israel in an effort to pause Israel’s plans. Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, stated that this breakdown in cooperation would further complicate the response to an escalating COVID crisis.

As Israel moved forward in its plans and the Palestinian Authority rejected options to cooperate, Mladenov said, “this situation could have serious repercussions on the ability to control [the virus’] spread and its impact on people’s lives.”

In August, Israel suspended annexation plans as part of its agreement to normalize relations with the United Arab Emirates, however, two months later, Israel once again resumed settlement activities. The High Planning Committee set out its largest collective advancements to date on October 14 and 15, advancing 5,000 settlement housing units.

“Settlement-related activities…undermined the prospect of achieving a viable two-State solution in line with UN resolutions,” said Mladenov.

Throughout this, the Palestinian Authority has continued to reject cooperation with Israel.

The economic fallout from the pandemic has particularly impacted the legitimacy and power of the Palestinian Authority. Mladenov stated “the viability of the Palestinian Authority is being severely undermined by an economic and fiscal crisis that has been exacerbated by the Palestinian decision to end civilian and security coordination with Israel.”

Cooperation between Israel and Palestine is necessary for the public health crisis but also crucial to the stability of the Palestinian Authority. Despite these challenges, Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas agreed to hold elections in early 2021—the first in nearly 15 years—moving towards ending over a decade of infighting.

Although the COVID pandemic has not significantly impacted relations between Israel and Palestine, Palestinian President Abbas called for an international conference in 2021 to launch a “genuine peace process”. While Israel has shown limited interest in this initiative, it’s timing lines up with a new US administration which could support and momentum. Furthermore, Israel will continue to attempt regional peace following recent normalization of relation agreement with Bahrain, the UAE, and Sudan.

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