The coronavirus pandemic and PA's failed disengagement strategy

5 months ago 29
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Last year, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeated his pledge to annex parts of the occupied West Bank and the US administration continued to insist on the one-sided "deal of the century", the Palestinian Authority (PA) scrambled to put together a new political strategy.

In April 2019, newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh announced his cabinet would proceed with "economic disengagement" from the occupation. Over the summer, Palestinian officials continued to talk about this new strategy, and in September, the PA finally took action, declaring it was halting direct imports of cattle from Israel.

In the following months, the Palestinian government's attempts to implement the strategy resulted in a mini-trade war with Israel, which swiftly ended in March as the Palestinian authorities faced the prospect of a major novel coronavirus outbreak.

The pandemic quickly became the ultimate test of the new strategy, which crumbled as the PA grappled with controlling the spread of the disease and steering the already struggling Palestinian economy. As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's latest declaration of the end of accords and security cooperation with Israel proves to be once again just an empty threat, it is time for the Palestinian leadership to radically change its strategy.

The 'disengagement strategy'

The idea of "economic disengagement" from Israel has been circulating in Palestinian policy circles for years. There have also been past attempts to impose various boycotts on Israeli goods which have not met any success.

As the US moved its embassy to Jerusalem, recognising Israeli claim over the city, and disturbing details of the Trump administrations "deal of the century" started to surface, the idea of Palestinian disengagement came to the fore once again.

When Shtayyeh took office in April 2019, he made it a priority of his new cabinet. The Palestinian prime minister talked of strengthening Palestinian economic independence by boosting local production, exports and direct imports from abroad and encouraging Palestinians working in Israel to seek employment in the Palestinian territories instead.

He also said his government would pursue a "cluster development" strategy, stimulating certain economic sectors in various regions: agriculture in Jenin, industry in Nablus, tourism in Bethlehem and medical service provision in occupied East Jerusalem.

The strategy has been predicated on the PA continuing to receive tax revenue which, under the 1994 Paris Protocol, is collected by the Israeli authorities on its behalf. However, over the past 25 years, Israel has regularly withheld tax revenue from the Palestinian government under various pretexts, including, most recently, that the PA was paying pensions to families of Palestinian political prisoners who the Israelis consider "terrorists".

Withholding such funds is just one of many coercive tactics available to the Israeli government to counter any Palestinian policy it deems threatening to its political-economic interests. And what happened after the Palestinian ban on import of cattle illustrated that perfectly.

In January 2020, the Israeli government issued a ban on importing Palestinian agricultural products. In early February, the PA prohibited the import of some Israeli goods to which the Israelis responded by blocking Palestinian goods from crossing Israeli territory for export into Jordan.

Two weeks later, as a COVID-19 outbreak loomed and threatened the already shattered Palestinian economy, the PA caved in and lifted the ban on Israeli goods. The Palestinian leadership claimed they had reached a deal with the Israelis to import cattle directly from international markets through Israel.

The announcement was made just a day before Israel officially declared it had registered the first case of COVID-19. The spread of the virus to the occupied Palestinian territories was just a matter of time. On March 5, the PA announced its first positive test of COVID-19 and declared a one-month state of emergency.

The coronavirus pandemic not only hastened the end of Palestinian attempts to implement "economic disengagement" but it also demonstrated just how impotent the PA is in taking any major decisions concerning the Palestinian people, even when it comes to public health.

The PA's failures in combatting COVID-19

Since early March, the PA has tried to implement a variety of measures to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. It was obvious early on that the contagion will spread from Israel through Palestinian labourers working in Israeli cities and illegal settlements. This was later confirmed by statistics: In April, 79 percent of the cases in the West Bank and Gaza Strip were labourers in Israel or their family members.

So, on March 17, Shtayyeh announced that movement between Israeli and Palestinian territory was to be cut off and that labourers would have three days to sort out accommodation on the Israeli side if they wanted to continue working.

A week later, after several sick labourers were mistreated by the Israeli authorities, Shtayyeh called on Palestinians to leave their jobs in Israel and stay home, as they were at a greater risk of contracting the virus. This threatened Israel's economy, especially the construction sector, so the Israeli government acted quickly and started issuing permits for Palestinians to stay on Israeli territory.

The PA wanted the Israeli authorities to start doing medical checks on Palestinian labourers, but they refused. Thus, the movement of Palestinians in and out of Israel continued, undermining any efforts by the Palestinian cabinet to rein in the spread of the virus.

The PA has also struggled to fight the spread of the virus in Areas B and C of the occupied West Bank, which are under direct Israeli security control. Shtayyeh called on local communities to form emergency committees and undertake provision of medical and security services in these areas.

But the Israeli occupation forces have systematically undermined such efforts. They have stormed Palestinian barriers set up by the local communities at the entrances of Palestinian villages to control the flow of Palestinian labourers working in Israel returning home.

The occupation authorities have also sabotaged efforts of Palestinian officials who have tried to implement preventive measures in the Palestinian towns and neighbourhoods within the administrative boundaries of occupied East Jerusalem.

On April 3, the occupation authorities arrested the minister of Jerusalem affairs, Fadi Al-Hadami for "illegal" activities. Two days later, they also detained Adnan Ghaith, the PA's Jerusalem governor. Both were involved in anti-outbreak efforts.

In addition, Israel has refused to allow the Palestinian government to operate in Jerusalem and to test Palestinians for the virus.

Time for a new strategy

On May 19, Abbas declared all accords with Israel and the US "void" in response to the Israeli plan to annex parts of the West Bank in July and US acquiescence to it. This came nearly a year after he announced the suspension of all deals with Israel.

The president said that his latest declaration puts an end to security cooperation with Israeli forces and transfers all responsibility for occupied Palestinian territories to the Israeli government. But the announcement has been poor on details and, so far, does not seem to have resulted in any major changes in relations with Israel.

In fact, some Palestinian officials have sent messages of reassurance to Israel that the Palestinian security services will continue their work to stop any resistance against Israel in the West Bank. It does seem that this will be yet another of the dozens of PA declarations on halting security coordination with Israel which have not resulted in any serious action.

It is indeed incomprehensible why the PA continues to insist on using the same toolkit of ineffective measures which, over the past quarter of a century, have failed to stop Israel's relentless colonisation of Palestinian land and exploitation of Palestinian resources.

With looming annexation of up to 30 percent of the West Bank in July, it is high time for the PA to abandon these tired tactics.

The Palestinian leadership must stop talking about a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders and admit that historical Palestine is governed by an apartheid system. This would open the way to expand the resistance against Israeli colonialism and oppression to all Palestinians inside and outside Palestine.

Within historical Palestine, naming Israel as an apartheid power would allow all Palestinians (those living in the West Bank, Gaza, and 1948 occupied lands) to engage in decentralised resistance against apartheid, using all possible strategies and tools. The Palestinian leadership will be part of it as well.

Outside of Palestine, acknowledging apartheid would help Palestinians in the diaspora convince the international community to accept the Palestinian struggle as one against apartheid and racism.

In this way, Palestinians will move from the impossible dream of two states to the reality of anti-apartheid resistance and help attract the support of everyone around the world who believes in justice, equality, and liberty.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance.

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