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Israeli-Palestinian pandemic cooperation tested by rising cases

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Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

The onset of the coronavirus pandemic fostered rare moments of unity between Israeli and Palestinian leaders but as the severity of the outbreak has escalated so too have tensions.

Early cooperation saw the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority work closely with Israeli health officials, including on population movement and hospital management policies, experts said.

Coordinated action to seal off a COVID-19 outbreak in the West Bank city of Bethlehem was also praised.

But on Wednesday Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh accused Israel of undermining his government's containment efforts by not stopping Palestinians from working in Israeli settlements.

"What is required is for Israel to leave us alone," he said.

There are more than 5,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Israel's nearly 10 million people, and 122 confirmed cases in the West Bank, home to some 2.7 million Palestinians.

Testing rates in the West Bank are lower than in Israel.

"The real weakness in the Palestinian battle against the spread of coronavirus is the (Israeli) occupation," Shtayyeh told reporters.

- 'Racist' conduct? -

An early issue was the 70,000 Palestinians with permits to work in Israel.

Last month, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed a policy that sought to limit population movements while allowing Palestinians to remain employed.

Workers were given 72 hours to decide if they would stay in Israel through the crisis or return to the West Bank.

Then a video emerged that appeared to show a sick Palestinian worker after being dumped at a checkpoint by Israeli authorities.

The video went viral and outraged Palestinians.

Shtayyeh said it showed "racist" conduct by the Israelis.

Israeli police said the man had arrived at a hospital requesting treatment but had been found to be working in Israel illegally.

"Police escorted the man to the Maccabim security crossing," a police spokesman said, stressing the individual had tested negative for COVID-19 before being brought to the checkpoint.

Tensions spiked further when officials revealed the first Palestinian to die, a woman in her 60s, had been in contact with her son who works inside Israel.

Shtayyeh has since demanded that all Palestinians still working in Israel return to the West Bank.

But some said they are not in a position to give up the income they earn in Israel.

Palestinian worker Faraj, who asked that his full name be withheld, said he had decided to share a room with four other colleagues in Israel rather than return home.

After seeing the video, the 26-year-old said he was terrified he would contract the virus and be brutally thrown out of Israel.

"I prefer to stay and sleep here after seeing the painful scenes at the checkpoints," he told AFP.

The Palestinian Authority has limited autonomy in the West Bank, which has been under Israeli occupation since 1967.

More than 400,000 Jewish settlers live in the area in communities considered illegal under international law.

Palestinians with jobs in the settlements were warned by their government of high caseloads within the Jewish communities.

Israel had said that Palestinians working in settlements were free to cross back and forth daily, before a complete ban on non-essentials movements was imposed.

On Wednesday, the Palestinian Authority said 15 of its citizens employed in settlements had tested positive for the virus, pointing the blame at Israeli policies.

"Israel's decision to allow the entry of workers is an attempt to protect the Israeli economy at the expense of the lives of our workers," Shtayyeh said.

"Israel's economy is not as precious as the lives of our children."

- Cooperation, demolitions -

Despite tensions, cooperation is necessary out of "self-interest", Ofer Zalzberg of the International Crisis Group think tank said.

"Because the two populations are so intertwined, curbing the virus only in one society is impossible."

Yotam Shefer of the Israeli military branch responsible for civilian affairs in the Palestinian Territories (COGAT) insisted cooperation has remained strong.

"Coordination with (the PA) is very tight and very sharp," he told reporters, citing joint medical workshops and training.

Former COGAT chief Eitan Dangot told reporters the PA had "adopted absolutely the Israeli policy on how to deal with coronavirus."

Yet sources of conflict that pre-dated the pandemic have also not disappeared.

The Israeli army has continued to conduct raids in Palestinian areas and demolish homes and other structures, while confiscating tents designated to be a medical clinic, according to the Israeli anti-occupation NGO B'Tselem.

Walid Assaf, who heads the Palestinian government's settlement monitoring department, said he had expected a freeze on settlement construction during the pandemic.

Instead, Israel was using the outbreak "to create new facts on the ground."

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