Members of the Palestinian Authority’s security forces man a roadblock in PA-controlled Hebron, in the southern West Bank, on July 17. (Hazem Bader/AFP via Getty Images)

Diplomacy Dustup Leaves PA Partially Helpless in Controlling Pandemic

Decision to end security coordination with Israel over annexation plan means enforcement efforts by Palestinian Authority absent from much of West Bank

The Palestinian Authority has been unable to impose COVID-19 containment measures to stop a surge of cases in some West Bank villages since breaking off security cooperation with Israel, Palestinian officials say.

While the PA has enforced strict curfews to slam the brakes on a coronavirus spike in the 40% of the West Bank under its control – primarily urban areas – it can no longer reach areas under Israeli control.

There has been a sharp rise in cases in Palestinian villages in the 60% of the West Bank under full Israeli control. This section, known as Area C, includes Israeli settlements and parts of the Jordan Valley.

The Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords signed in the 1990s divide the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. Area A is under full Palestinian control while B is under Palestinian administrative and Israeli security control.

Palestinian officials say their security forces have been banned from setting up checkpoints at many crossings and in Area C.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced an end to security coordination with Israel in May in response to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s threat to annex parts of the West Bank that include Israeli settlements, as well as the Jordan Valley.

Under the coordination agreement with Israel, PA security forces had been able to enter Area C if they contacted the Israeli military first. After the PA suspended security ties, the PA police withdrew to Area A.

The PA Interior Ministry spokesman, Dr. Ghassan Nemer, told The Media Line that not having Palestinian police on the ground in Area C presented a major challenge to containing the pandemic.

“There is no doubt that we have a problem in Area C,” he said. “Our emergency crews are not able to impose restrictive measures. Only 10% of the residents there adhere to our preventive measures.”

There is no doubt that we have a problem in Area C. Our emergency crews are not able to impose restrictive measures. Only 10% of the residents there adhere to our preventive measures

Mohammed Ghafary, an administrator in Sinjil, a village west of Ramallah in Area C, told The Media Line that at the beginning of the pandemic, PA security forces helped enforce health rules.

“Palestinian security was always present in our town, even if they did not carry out any closings or put up roadblocks,” he said. “Just their presence was enough of a deterrence to prevent non-compliance [with sanitary measures, and there was a] complete closure.”

Ghafary says, however, that the decision to stop security coordination is not the only reason for the virus’ spread.

“In the first wave, the Palestinian security forces were replaced by popular emergency committees, composed of village volunteers,” he explained. “But the people are physically and financially worn out. They exhausted their savings, and there is no one to compensate them financially for their time.”

He says that these days, Sinjil residents are keeping their stores open later, socializing in cafes and holding weddings at home.

“We don’t have either the popular units or the PA police to impose restrictions,” he said.

“We used to sanitize all cars entering the village, call on merchants to close their shops and distribute food packages to the needy. All that had to end because the Israeli army prevents us from operating within the village, forcing us to stop our volunteer work,” Ghafary said.

The PA imposed a lockdown for several weeks during the first COVID-19 outbreak in the spring. With the second wave, it has enforced a limited curfew. But now, it cannot coordinate with Israel and send its security forces into Palestinian parts of Area C.

Abdul Majeed Swailem, a professor of regional studies at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that these are very difficult times for the PA.

“The leadership is trying to balance [its efforts] between the coronavirus and how to keep Palestinians safe in the absence of the security coordination,” he explained.

The PA Health Ministry said in its daily report on Sunday that there were more than 460 new COVID-19 infections over the previous 24 hours, more than 7,895 total cases, and 64 total deaths.

Areej Assi, mayor of Beit Liqya in Area C, told The Media Line that her village of 12,000 was an example to others during the first wave of coronavirus.

“We were a model of commitment in Beit Liqya. PA security helped us a lot in implementing the government’s decisions, restrictions and closures,” she stated.

But now, things are different.

“We are facing a big problem because we have no control over anything,” she said. “We can’t force people to obey orders…. In the past, if no one responded, we would call in the security forces, but now we have no one to help enforce closures.”

We are facing a big problem because we have no control over anything. We can’t force people to obey orders…. In the past, if no one responded, we would call in the security forces, but now we have no one to help enforce closures

Assi adds that her village has another problem because it is near the security wall Israel erected to keep Palestinian attackers out.

“This apartheid wall has a lot of holes that enable many men from my village to cross into Israel to look for work. When they come back, they don’t do the coronavirus test, and that’s another reason for the increase in cases,” she explained.

Assi agrees that things have gotten worse since security coordination with Israel was halted.

“Security in Palestinian villages in Area C northwest of Jerusalem was coordinated with Israel. If there is security coordination, then the situation is under control,” she said, “and if not, there is chaos.”

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