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March, in short:

  • Israeli-Palestinian cooperation rises to meet threat of COVID-19: Effect of the global pandemic on Israeli and Palestinian societies leads both sides to work together against a common enemy, and enables an unprecedented Israeli decision to allow PA security forces to enter East Jerusalem and Area C
  • COVID-19 crisis freezes push for West Bank annexation: The Israeli government’s fight against the spread of the virus, along with the political stalemate, curtail efforts to annex parts of the West Bank in the near term
  • Gaza and the West Bank see dramatic drop in violence as PA initiates assistance measures: COVID-19 crisis pushes Israel and Palestinian factions to almost entirely halt all attacks, while Hamas and the Palestinian Authority take new steps to combat the virus
  • New evidence and activity related to settlement expansion: Among other findings, a new report shows that settlement approvals soared in 2019, and more action is taken by Israel to allow for building in E1

These events raised the Two-State Index (TSI) by 3.9% (up by 0.2 points from 5.01 in the previous month).

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COVID-19 crisis met by marked increase in cooperation between Israel and Palestinians

Along with the rest of the world, Israelis and Palestinians are simultaneously suffering from the coronavirus pandemic and its widespread effect on all levels of society. Along with the drastic measures taken by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas to keep citizens isolated, a number of collaborative actions were initiated. Israeli and PA officials met on March 5th to discuss coordination of steps to curb the spread of the virus, leading to the establishment of a joint communications mechanism. Led by the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) and the Palestinian Civil Affairs Department, this mechanism includes a joint operations room to allow for immediate updates to both sides on all matters relating to the COVID-19 crisis. 

Ofer Zalzberg, MENA Senior Analyst at Crisis Group, said that Israeli security officials believe it is in their “strong interest” to prevent the spread of the virus in the West Bank, “because even if it is eradicated in Israel, then a second wave could come” across the border to Israel. In conjunction with the PA, Israel closed off all border crossings for Palestinians from the West Bank on March 18th, with some 47,000 Palestinian workers ultimately choosing the option of remaining in Israel for up to two months. On March 23rd, it was revealed that NIS 120 million ($33.5 million) in clearance funds – taxes collected from Palestinians that are partially withheld by Israel - were transferred to the PA as an emergency measure. Subsequently, 3,000 coronavirus test-kits and 50,000 masks, donated by the World Health Organization, were delivered to the PA's health system in a move coordinated by COGAT.

On March 30th, UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nikolay Mladenov praised “the far-reaching measures that both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have taken” to combat the coronavirus. Underscoring the new spirit of collaboration, a poll released on March 24th by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion and Gallup International found that over 68% of Palestinians support cooperation with Israel in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. According to a Ramallah-based senior journalist, PA cooperation with Israel has become “a national demand” among Palestinians. “There's a psychological element,” he said. “For the first time, the two sides are facing the same enemy, and Palestinians view Israelis as partners against this enemy. It’s led to reduced animosity, and it may have some impact [on Israeli-Palestinian relations] in the long run.”

The crisis has also revealed to Israelis some of the benefits of a potential two-state outcome. It has provided a new clarification of the benefits of the existence of the PA and the framework for Palestinian governance established by the Oslo Accords, and how the weight of this responsibility on Israel’s shoulders would otherwise be overwhelming. With the PA running its own internal security, healthcare services, and other matters in the West Bank, the Israeli government has been free to keep its efforts primarily focused inside the Green Line.

Professor Gilad Hirschberger, a social psychologist at IDC-Herzliya, outlined how “the unique circumstances of the global pandemic make Israeli and Palestinian public health intertwined. Neither population can be safe if the health of the other is compromised.” Reflecting on this new reality, Nidal Foqaha, Director-General of the Palestinian Peace Coalition-Geneva Initiative, expressed his belief that the joint response to the crisis “will contribute to changing the paradigm for the future … [this] pandemic sent a clear message to both Israelis and Palestinians that the issue of cooperation and coordination, and arranging or dealing with such situations jointly, is a must."

The increased level of Israeli-PA cooperation moved the Security coordination parameter from to 8 to 9. The Palestinian public opinion and civil society parameters both increased from 4 to 5.

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No new moves towards annexation amid COVID-19 crisis

With all parts of the Israeli government either focused on or affected by the coronavirus crisis, the march towards annexing parts of the West Bank stalled in March, even as the US-Israeli mapping team continued its work. However, the imminent unity government of Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, whose makeup is currently being negotiated, has yet to agree on a formula regarding the possibility of future annexation.

On March 30th, Israeli organizations that comprise the Two State Coalition, including the Geneva Initiative, sent a letter to Gantz and Labor leader Amir Peretz stressing that “annexation of settlements must be a red line that if crossed cannot allow for those who support peace and Israel as a Jewish and democratic state to remain in the government.” The signatories urged both leaders “to stop any annexation plans and to assure that in the next government's basic agreements there will be no unilateral annexation of settlements and territory in the West Bank.”

Although it is clear that practical steps toward annexation are currently being postponed, once the COVID-19 crisis abates, domestic political considerations for both Netanyahu and President Trump may lead either leader to use this issue to bolster and consolidate support.

For now, these developments have moved the parameter relevant to annexation (Israeli law in the West Bank) from 4 to 5.

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In the face of COVID-19 threat, significant reduction in violence and new PA assistance to Gaza

There was an almost complete cessation of violence in Gaza during March, as both Israel and Hamas took measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus. While one rocket was fired from the Strip on both March 6th and 27th, with Israel launching limited airstrikes in response, there were no other attacks of any kind, marking a significant de-escalation from previous months. Furthermore, Hamas and other Palestinian groups cancelled a planned march to commemorate the Palestinian national holiday of Land Day, and directed its efforts and resources toward the construction and preparation of buildings to be used as quarantine centers.

Meanwhile, the PA took a number of measures to assist Palestinians in Gaza, including the distribution of foreign aid, medicine, and medical equipment. For the first time, the PA lifted an economic sanction imposed on Gaza, cancelling the forced retirement of PA civil servants enforced in 2017. These steps may be the beginning of an increase in collaboration between the PA and Hamas to fight the spread and effect of the virus, which may improve prospects and support for reconciliation.

For now, all parameters related to reconciliation have remained in place. With violence having subsided due solely to the COVID-19 crisis, a matter unrelated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the relevant parameters remained the same as well.

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New findings on settlement expansion revealed as Bennett advances E1 plans

A new report released by Peace Now on March 18th showed that, despite a slight decline in settlement construction starts in 2019, the rate of approvals for construction plans in the West Bank rose dramatically. Israel advanced plans for 8,457 housing units in 2019, up from 5,618 in 2018. Approximately 63% of the new construction in 2019 was found to be in settlements east of the border proposed in the Geneva Accord. Moreover, the report revealed that 10% of construction occurred in illegal settlement outposts, and that 11 new outposts were established in 2019, all of them east of the Geneva Accord’s proposed border. 

The report came in the wake of another significant step taken to expand settlements by Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who on March 9th ordered the paving of a highway that would remove all Palestinian traffic from the E1 area of Ma’aleh Adumim. This followed Netanyahu’s authorization in February to advance plans for 3,500 new housing units in E1, where settlement construction would cut off East Jerusalem from its West Bank environs and prevent the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.  

With the new illegal outposts having been established as agriculture farms, the relevant parameter shifted from 6 to 5. All other relevant parameters remained the same for now.

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What to look for next month:

  • Continued and stronger Israeli-Palestinian cooperation to fight the spread of COVID-19, in both the West Bank and Gaza
  • Potential shifts in the public discourse among both Israelis and Palestinians on who is to blame for the crisis
  • The agenda of the new Israeli government on issues related to annexation, settlement expansion, and that of new ministers in key portfolios, such as the Ministry of Defense
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The Two-State Index (TSI) is brought to you by the Geneva Initiative, a Palestinian-Israeli organization working to promote a negotiated peace agreement in the spirit of the two-state vision. The TSI is produced by an Israeli-Palestinian team, and reflects a unique bilateral perspective.
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