Last week we had an unusual week in Jerusalem, the temperature throughout the week was almost 40 Celsius. This was very hot, which made many of us want to stay at home despite the coronavirus health measures being slowly lifted. It is indeed a new era after these few weeks in lockdown, and things seem to be going back to ‘normal’. As I was walking in the streets of Jerusalem this week, I began to see people again sitting in coffee shops and restaurants. Even though things seem to go back to how they were, a lot has changed since the outbreak. For instance, there have been some positive initiatives between different segments of society to fight the Coronavirus, this is also true to cooperation between certain Palestinians and Israelis. But will this cooperation last and make a difference?
The political situation seems to indicate that such developments may end. It is taking us in the opposite direction. The newly elected Israeli government is not helping to foster cooperation, trust and reconciliation. The latest election was fuelled by racist and hateful rhetoric, the Prime Minister is on trial for many cases of corruption and the government has made many statements in favour of illegally annexing Palestinian Territories. If such annexation does materialise, the rise of violence will spike and create more divide between Palestinians and Israelis. People are already preparing for such events to occur and predicting the rise in violent clashes.
Likewise, the Coronavirus has negatively impacted people economically. With the closure being lifted up in the West Bank, the new reality of loss of jobs and business is hitting. In the West Bank, not to mention Gaza, experts estimate a 50% unemployment. In Israel, experts estimate a 15% unemployment even when people go back to work. This economic devastation, together with the annexation plan to take Palestinian land, the potential for escalation in violence and general frustration is rising. This may eventually lead to an explosion.
Another phenomenon that happened during the Coronavirus that will probably continue, is the new law regulations that allow secret services to monitor, track and invade one’s privacy. This is not just unique to our context in the Middle East, but true to other countries around the world. Before the outbreak, a number of countries needed special legal permission to gather information from people’s phones, cameras and online accounts, today this is much easier. This can violate many rights and allow for authorities to expand their power. They can use this to gain influence over their citizens. In other words, the rules of engagement between governments and citizens, and Israelis and Palestinians, is changing rapidly.
What do all of these developments mean? There are two main options. On one hand, governments and some leaders may continue to use these circumstances to advance divisive and destructive policies in Israel and Palestine; taking advantage of the fact that many other countries and people are busy and struggling to cope with the Coronavirus. Which will ultimately lead to catastrophic results, enormous pain and devastating suffering. And when countries, especially those connected to the Middle East and the Holy Land, will realise what has happened, it will be too late.
On the other hand, people and leaders can take advantage of some positive events, engagement and cooperation that have happened recently. This can build on already existing connections to advance an alternative vision for the conflict. A vision that its foundational blocks comprise of mutual trust, shared interests and cooperation. In the same manner that some Palestinians and Israelis joined together to prevent the spread of the virus.
For this reason, we ought to be aware of the developments around us, proactive to engage with one another and care for the ‘other’, in order to counter the destructive vision that will bring irreversible implications to our lives. Especially to those most vulnerable in our societies. Things are indeed getting hot here, and not in a good way. If we continue to ignite the fire of the conflict, it will be far more dangerous than the Coronavirus and no lockdown will help us.
Musalaha Executive Director — Salim J. Munayer