In the last two weeks, there were several events that I had observed that relate to the Coronavirus and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I would like to elaborate in this short reflection some of my observations and comments.
Event 1: Since the coronavirus started to spread to our part of the world, the coronavirus took precedence in our media over any other story or aspect in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. This of course is expected as we are all preoccupied with dealing with the pandemic. However one aspect that does relate to the conflict and was covered in the news, is the cooperation and coordination between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in fighting the pandemic. Although this relations has not been perfect, it has produced positive results in reducing the amount of cases.
Despite the Coronavirus being a common enemy to rally together against, as partially seen with the cooperation between Israel and the PA, we have also witnessed discrimination in providing assistance. Namely, the lack of investment and services towards the Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem (including shouting down a testing clinic) and many settler groups taking advantage of this situation to also harass residents of the West bank. On one hand there is collaboration between the two sides, and on the other, the conflict continues.
Event 2: In Israel itself, the Palestinian-Israeli and Israeli-Jewish communities are to a large degree separated and segregated. Yet, one area where Palestinians and Israelis work together is in the health care system. More than 20% of health care workers are Palestinians living in Israel. The other night I watched a documentary on one of the hospitals that is dealing with many corona cases. When they asked an Israeli-Jewish doctor about this collaboration in the hospital between Palestinians and Israeli citizens, he commented that ‘in this war against the corona, we are brothers in arms’. This is astonishing as this statement is usually used by Israeli-Jews for Israeli-Jews only, but here he was praising the sacrifice and risk taken by Palestinian doctors.
When interviewing one of the Palestinian doctors, the producer asked if he had encountered any racism by the Israeli-Jewish patients. The Palestinian doctor went quiet and tried to avoid answering the question. Suddenly, the head of the department (Israeli-Jew) jumped in and said that the Palestinian doctor experiences racism on a daily basis in his work environment. Even though Palestinians and Israelis are fighting to a certain degree the virus together, political and social realities remain.
Event 3: I was approached by an organisation in Israel that brings Israeli and Palestinian school principals together from around the country. The organiser said to me that this group has been meeting for 5 years now and was facing many challenges, and whether I would agree to talk to them via an online conference call to share our experience at Musalaha. As I was speaking to the group, I realised how frustrated the group was and wondered what to do next. Especially since the coronavirus has highlighted the different attitude the Ministry of Education expresses to the different Palestinian and Israeli communities. I shared with them some of our findings of over 30 years of work in order to provide them with some tools for social transformation. Further, we discussed how the coronavirus really provides us with an opportunity for critical self-reflection and to explore new avenues.
Event 4: This week is national Memorial Day for the Israeli soldiers and Independence Day in Israel. This is a very important week for the Israeli-Jewish narrative, as we know how historical narratives are used for mobilising and recruiting people in times of conflict on both sides. People in Israel really take the time to remember those who have been killed because of the conflict on the Israeli side. However, in the past few years, the Israeli Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace organisation started organising an alternative memorial day for all of those who lost a family member or friend in the conflict, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian. In the beginning it started very small, but this year as they streamed the event online because of the Coronavirus, an estimated 200,000 people viewed it online. This is an absolutely amazing number.
In all these incidences, the Coronavirus sharpens the ongoing political reality we live in, but at the same time provides alternative possibilities. An alternative possibility of working together as opposed to competing and fighting one another, and thus, breaking the cycle of hatred and violence. To speak out against bigotry and racism of any kind, as well as to confront not only our pain and loss but our fellow neighbour’s. Taking this alternative path, restores the humanity in our neighbour, and by doing so, the humanity in ourselves. May we take this opportunity of the Coronavirus to move from the deadlock we have placed ourselves in, to a different path.
Musalaha Executive Director — Salim J. Munayer