Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, good news is hard to come by. However, historical foes in the Middle East have teamed up to fight the virus, breaking taboos and opening up new areas of cooperation. Arab countries and Palestinian health workers have been working closely with Israel in delivering aid and researching life-saving treatments.
Within Israel, Arab Israeli citizens have been at the forefront of the pandemic response. Half of the pharmacists, a quarter of the nurses, and a fifth of the doctors in Israel are Arab.
“The Israeli health care system is an inspiring place,” said Arsalan Abu Much, a doctor at Sheba Medical Center, the largest hospital in Israel. “We work together side by side, Jewish and Arab doctors, friends, colleagues. … It’s time that the political system takes up this model.”
Arab populations beyond Israel’s borders, including half of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, have solicited medical advice from Israel on fighting COVID-19. According to the director of Sheba’s International Division, Yoel Haraven, Bahrain and two other Gulf states have contacted the hospital for guidance.
In June 2019, Haraven participated in the “Peace to Prosperity Workshop,” a US-led, two-day conference in Bahrain that aimed to couple peace efforts with economic investments in the Palestinian economy. Haraven has kept in touch with colleagues from Gulf countries who attended, laying the groundwork for cooperation during this unprecedented health crisis.
“Whatever help we can give our neighbors – we will do it happily,” Haraven added.
The United Arab Emirates have shown noteworthy willingness to engage with Israel to address the novel coronavirus. The UAE’s ambassador to the United Nations, Lana Zaki Nusseibeh, spoke openly during a webinar about her government’s intentions to cooperate with Israel.
“Our perspective on science and tackling this pandemic is that it shouldn’t know borders or boundaries,” Nusseibeh said. On researching treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19, she noted that, “There’s a lot of scope for cooperation.”
In a historic first on May 19, Etihad Airways, the UAE’s state-controlled airline, flew more than 16 tons of medical equipment from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv. This delivery included ventilators, personal protective equipment, and other medical supplies for Palestinians.
Nickolay Mladenov, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, facilitated the delivery of the donations. A second Etihad flight landed in Israel after that with more COVID-19 aid for the Palestinians.
“In light of strengthening international cooperation in the fields of research, development & technology in service of humanity, two private companies in UAE sign an agreement with two companies in Israel to develop research technology to fight COVID-19,” a government spokesperson announced on Twitter.
The Israeli government has been instrumental in keeping the pandemic at bay in the West Bank and Gaza. In the early days of the pandemic response, the Israeli government organized joint training sessions with Israeli and Palestinian healthcare workers. The Israel Defense Forces delivered thousands of coronavirus testing kits and masks, as well as more than 20 tons of disinfectant to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
In a rare move, the Palestinian branch of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs praised Israel for its “unprecedented cooperation on efforts aimed at containing the epidemic” in Palestinian populations. In late March, Special Coordinator Mladenov also applauded the “excellent coordination and cooperation that has been established with all Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors.”
By contrast, the Islamic Republic of Iran refuses such cooperation. Rather, the regime continues to send dangerous weapons, including precision guided munitions, to its proxies along Israel’s borders. But this is not the will of everyday Iranians. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Persian-language social media director, Sharona Avginsaz, said that its Persian social media channels have seen a surge in messages from Iranians asking for Israeli help as they face a second coronavirus wave.
One of the impediments to fuller cooperation are laws that criminalize human contact with Israeli citizens, on penalty of prison and even death. The Arab Council for Regional Integration – a coalition of civic actors, cultural leaders, and public servants from more than 15 Arab countries – advocates repealing these laws for the sake of direct Arab-Israeli civil engagement.
In May, 85 French political, civic, and intellectual leaders signed a letter of support for the Council’s efforts, stating, “It is time to learn from past failures and enter into dialogue with Israeli society rather than censorship; to place their trust in Arab-Jewish coexistence rather than a policy of rejection and exclusion.”
The COVID-19 global health crisis transcends politics. Harsh words and violence often dominate the headlines emerging from the Middle East, but the pandemic has recently highlighted moments of extraordinary cooperation. Traditional adversaries can and should work together for mutual benefit.
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where Talia Katz is a government relations analyst. Follow Toby and Talia on Twitter at @tobydersh and @taliagkatz. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.