Palestinian health workers handling a coronavirus test sample of Palestinian workers as they cross back from Israel at a checkpoint in Tarqumiya on March 25, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90) (Times of Israel)
To even the most discerning eye, a sandy desert is little more than a monochromatic expanse where very little grows.
But when the rain comes, almost within the blink of an eye that wasteland blossoms and it transforms into something quite magical. It challenges what we see and therefore our beliefs, and in turn we can see what is possible.
This is how Project Rozana came into being. We saw what was achievable between Israelis and Palestinians through the prism of health. COVID-19 has opened the eyes of others who are also seeing how two communities can work together, when they face an existential crisis.
Although there has been pushback from some, the prevailing voices are becoming ever more powerful as people realise on a personal level that we risk losing those we love, and on a societal level, the future is better if we face the crisis together.
This is not an aspirational sentiment, but the reality. And increasingly, Palestinians and Israelis are coming to see the COVID-19 as the common enemy. Saving one community will save another because the learnings are universal and must be applied universally if they are to take hold. The fight is not in the parliaments, the streets or the media, but in the wards of hospitals large and small, tertiary or makeshift. It is the health sector that defines the combatants and their allegiances, as the following examples demonstrate…
Ahmed Deek, a senior Foreign Ministry official in the Palestinian Authority, said on the record that cooperation with Israel is “necessary and important as it serves a humanitarian purpose because the outbreak is a danger to all.”
Israel has significantly assisted the PA in its struggle to stem the spread of the virus, and the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres has praised the cooperation between Israel and the PA on the issue.
Guterres said that “Israelis and Palestinians are a prime example of cooperation in the fight against corona.”
Israel’s President Reuben Rivlin called Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and gave official confirmation of the contacts that have been taking place since mid-February.
Israel Defence Force’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) recently delivered 3,000 testing kits for detecting coronavirus and 50,000 protective masks to the PA.
COGAT published the Israeli health ministry guidelines on prevention and protection from the virus spread and ways to deal with contagion and outbreak in Arabic.
Civil Administration Health Coordinator Dalia Basa said Israel will continue to assist the PA “both as an Israeli interest and for humanitarian reasons.”
Israel delivered respirators to eastern Jerusalem hospitals, Al-Makassed and St. Joseph.
“There is direct, daily contact with Israel’s Ministry of Health for the fight against corona,” a source at Al-Makassed said.
The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov briefed members of the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the European Union, the United States and Russia) about the effects of the coronavirus on the situation in Gaza. He stressed the “excellent coordination and cooperation that has been established with Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors” including the entry of critical supplies and equipment into Gaza.
These include swabs for collection of samples and other laboratory supplies required for COVID-19 testing and Personal Protective Equipment to protect health workers. This is in addition to Israel’s cooperation to allow for the movement and access of personnel involved in the COVID-19 response to and from both the West Bank and Gaza.
Jamie McGoldrick, who coordinates the UN’s humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, took to Twitter to “commend the Palestinian and Israeli authorities for their efforts to deal with COVID19 and for the exemplary levels of collaboration. Their close coordination and prompt actions will save lives.”
Elhanan Bar On, director of the Israel Center for Disaster Medicine and Humanitarian Response at Sheba Medical Center, said professional relationships between Israelis and Palestinians date back at least two decades.
“Our team travelled to Jericho, to see their facilities and we provided their professionals with a long session, sharing what we know and listening to what they need, and how to adapt what we do at Sheba, where we have high-tech equipment that they do not have. We followed up with visits in East Jerusalem, and met in Israel with groups from the Gaza Strip. We are also making ourselves available through the phone.”
On the Palestinian side, Unipal 2000, a Gaza clothing manufacturer based in Gaza City, has converted its factories to produce surgical masks and other protective gear, which they are selling to Israel. A spokesman said they have already signed contracts with Israeli business partners to provide one million masks and 50,000 protective suits by the end of April.
Noa Schusterman, Research Assistant to the Director General of Institute for National Security Studies and its Israel-Palestinian Research Program Coordinator, said that the Palestinian Authority has been completely open about its cooperation with Israel.
“The PA knows that their public trusts the Israeli capabilities more than they trust the Palestinian Authorities in matters like these. In fact, this cooperation boosts the position of the PA in the eyes of its own people.”
“Whenever there’s a crisis that affects the people’s health, collaboration should be possible,” Dr. Zahar Nazzal, an epidemiologist at An-Najah University in the West Bank city of Nabus said.
Dr. Walid Nammour, CEO of the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, said, “If this tiny virus, that we can’t even see, can be so destructive, we must learn to cooperate together now and in the future.”
A public opinion poll found that 68% of Palestinians support the PA’s cooperation with Israel to stem the spread of the virus. Some Israelis have voiced their gratitude on Twitter and television for Palestinian Arab citizens who make up 17% of Israel’s doctors, a quarter of its nurses and nearly half its pharmacists.
Acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman, who was awarded the 2017 Man Booker Prize, wrote to Haaretz about the radical changes in perspective the virus may bring. He wrote, “Possibly there will be some who will for the first time wonder why Israelis and Palestinians continue to do battle against each other, afflicting their lives for more than a hundred years with a war that could have been resolved long ago.”
The coronavirus outbreak has done what local and international politicians and activists have been unable to do. It has sparked an extraordinarily high level of cooperation and coordination between Palestinians and Israelis.
COVID-19 is, first and foremost a global health crisis. But at a deeper level, it is also a powerful statement about health and its ability to bridge the divide between people, when few other initiatives can. This is what Project Rozana set out to achieve.
The tentative steps we took in 2013 have become a leap of faith that could, if allowed, changes lives for the better and forever.