Like water, contagious diseases know no borders. They do not distinguish between peoples, countries and religions, nor do they recognize conflicts. They do not observe treaties, armistices or ceasefires. They are neither Christian, Muslim nor Jewish. They do not care about United Nations resolutions. Water flows, and diseases spread, unless they are prevented from doing so.
By the same token, being so vital and essential to humanity, fighting the spread of disease and ensuring the provision of water share the unique potential to serve as catalysts and as potential factors in encouraging and enhancing peace and cooperation between countries, peoples, regions and continents, for the good of humanity.
With the advance of technology and development throughout the world, there is a tendency to overlook a very basic truth: Society can survive without many things — diamonds, gold, zinc, oil, and other minerals and resources — but cannot exist without water and health.
The WHO, composed of 194 member states and with more than 150 regional offices across six regions, was established in 1948 with the objective, as stated in its constitution, of “the attainment by all peoples of the highest possible level of health.”
The WHO constitution lists such activities as directing and coordinating authority on international health work, establishing and maintaining effective collaboration with the governments, international organizations, professional groups and such other institutions as may be deemed appropriate; assisting governments, upon request, in strengthening health services, and furnishing technical assistance and, in emergencies, necessary aid upon the request or acceptance of governments.
On March 11, 2020, after having maintained, since December 2019, that the coronavirus epidemic constituted a “public health emergency of international concern,” the WHO declared it to have developed into a pandemic, considering its global spread.
The process for dealing with the international spread of diseases was set down in the WHO’s 2005 “International Health Regulations” (IHR), based on the experience of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in China in the 1980s.
These regulations serve as the basis for all WHO activity in the present pandemic. Their purpose is “to prevent, protect against, control and provide a public health response to the international spread of disease in ways that are commensurate with and restricted to public health risks, and which avoid unnecessary interference with international traffic and trade.” They also “provide the legal basis for important health documents applicable to international travel and transport and sanitary protections for the users of international airports, ports, and ground crossings.”
While the IHR places a moral obligation on states to provide all relevant public health information and to report within 24 hours any event that possibly constitutes an infectious disease, from the international legal point of view, the IHR are not mandatory, and have the status of recommendations only. As such, they are basically dependent on the willingness of states to cooperate by providing, in good faith, open, accurate, and timely information.
Breaches of the IHR do not lead to sanctions, and given the non-binding nature of recommendations, there are no direct legal consequences for their disregard.
An additional, serious international issue is the question of the advisability and effectiveness of travel or trade restrictions to countries experiencing outbreaks of coronavirus.
According to a WHO travel advisory dated Feb. 29: “[E]vidence shows that restricting the movement of people and goods during public health emergencies is ineffective in most situations and may divert resources from other interventions. Furthermore, restrictions may interrupt needed aid and technical support, may disrupt businesses, and may have negative social and economic effects on the affected countries. However, in certain circumstances, measures that restrict the movement of people may prove temporarily useful, such as in settings with few international connections and limited response capacities.“
Clearly, this issue is connected to considerations of human rights in applying restrictions on travel and trade and has already brought about claims that such restrictions may constitute violations of the basic rights of the public to travel freely.
This question was discussed in a legal opinion by an Australian law firm published on Feb. 17, entitled “Legal consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak on contracts: force majeure and frustration”:
[M]any states have reacted with robust mitigation measures, including closing borders, implementing a range of travel bans and engaging a myriad of internal domestic health and wellbeing procedures.
We are already seeing impacts of COVID-19 (and the mitigation measures) on domestic and international trade and commerce, capital flows, tourism, and migration.
In a world where markets and economies are intrinsically linked, where corporations and supply chains operate across hundreds of borders, and where the world is connected financially, digitally and socially like never before, a pandemic (or anything close to that) presents a significant financial and economic risk.
Corona in the Middle East
With such an immense challenge to the sustainability and maintenance of life due to the present pandemic, the countries and peoples of the Middle East have no choice but to bridge the political, religious and historic gaps between them.
Health, like water, won’t wait for peace to emerge. But through cooperation and mutual acknowledgment of the dangers inherent in the spread of contagion to their populations, states and peoples must work together.
As stated by the Israeli director of “EcoPeace Middle East,” Gidon Bromberg, in an interview with the Al-Monitor website: “The global coronavirus outbreak is … a stark reminder of the need to deepen regional cooperation on environmental issues. Building walls and barriers misleads the public into thinking that one side can successfully disengage from the other … The science of ecology and biology is there to remind us that we can never disengage from a shared environment.”
Similarly, an article titled “History of Cooperation in Health and Medicine Between Israel and Palestine,” published in a 2008 report of the “Palestinian/Israeli Health Initiative” by Susan J. Blumenthal and Stephanie Safdi, states: “Cooperation in the health field is part of a broader spectrum of people-to-people exchanges that operate in the region to build trust and understanding while delivering needed services in spite of a tense political climate. Just as diseases can cross borders easily today, so can solutions, making health an important bridge for building partnerships, trust and cooperation among Palestinians and Israelis.”
As such, the struggle against the spread of the coronavirus requires that all sides set aside hostility, suspicion, incitement, and hatred, in favor of building mutual confidence, regional and international unity, assistance and cooperation.
Precedents for such cooperation in the sphere of water may be found in several of the documents of the Middle East peace negotiation process between Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinians:
• The 1991 Madrid Middle East Peace Conference established a Multilateral Water Resources Working Group chaired by the United States, with Japan and the European Union as co-organizers.
• The 1993 Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements, in its third annex dealing with cooperation in economic and development programs, established a water development program for cooperation and management of water resources.
• The 1994 Jordan-Israel Peace Treaty contains a special Annex II devoted to water, establishing a bilateral regime for regulating summer and winter flows, storage and counter-pollution measures.
• Similarly, the 1995 Israel-Palestinian Interim Agreement (“Oslo II”), Annex III, Article 40, acknowledged Palestinian water rights and set out an Israeli-Palestinian supervisory regime for freshwater management, sewage control, and sustainable usage of the available resources.
In these instruments, the Israelis, Jordanians, and Palestinians acknowledged the dire shortage of water and the need to develop additional sources through regional and international cooperation and joint pollution prevention.
In the field of contagious diseases, the basis for cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel was set out in the same 1995 Interim Agreement between them. In Article 17 of the third annex to this agreement — the Protocol Concerning Civil Affairs — Israel and the PLO agreed and committed themselves to “exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, [to] cooperate in combating them and … develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents.”
They also agreed that “the health systems of Israel and of the Palestinian side will maintain good working relations in all matters, including mutual assistance in providing first aid in cases of emergency, medical instruction, professional training and exchange of information.”
In fact, over the years, Israeli and Palestinian health professionals have been collaborating effectively to prevent and treat disease. A review of collaborative projects in the 1990s published by experts at Al-Quds University and the JDC-Brookdale and JDC-Israel institutes in Jerusalem states: “Over two years the Israeli and Palestinian researchers studied 148 cooperative projects that brought together 67 mostly non-governmental organizations and some 4,000 Palestinians and Israelis in the field of health care and disease prevention. Most participants in these health programs — Jews, Muslims, and Christians with secular and religious backgrounds and left-wing and right-wing personal views — declared that they were very satisfied with the outcome and wanted to continue working together.”
In 2005, the two medical assistance organizations — the Palestinian Red Crescent Society and Israel’s Magen David Adom — signed a Memorandum of Understanding and an agreement on operational arrangements aimed at enhancing cooperation when carrying out their respective humanitarian mandates, facilitating movement of ambulances and patients, exchanging information, knowledge and experience, and cooperation in blood-bank issues.
While the extent of Palestinian-Israeli health collaboration has wavered over the years due to travel limitations, security issues and political tensions between the respective leaderships and peoples, the realization that health and medical collaboration is nevertheless essential and often vital has always existed and comes to the fore in crisis situations such as the current one.
With the current outset and progression of the coronavirus pandemic in the Middle East, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in a phone conversation with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas concerning the pandemic, called for the two sides to cooperate to confront the disease. “The world is dealing with a crisis that does not distinguish between people or where they live,” stated Rivlin. “The cooperation between us is vital to ensure the health of both Israelis and Palestinians…. Our ability to work together in times of crisis is also testament to our ability to work together in the future for the good of us all.”
In a March 11 article in the Christian Science Monitor titled, “‘Something human’: Mideast fight against virus elicits rare unity,” the newspaper’s Israel correspondent, Joshua Mitnick, recalled previous instances of cooperation between Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian health authorities through the establishment, 15 years ago, of an organization to promote joint public health initiatives — the Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance. The organization sponsored joint epidemiological training for doctors and nurses and promoted research collaboration and a regional network of public health professionals.
Regarding current cooperation to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Mitnick states: “Palestinian health-care professionals have received training in Israeli hospitals, Israeli labs have analyzed Palestinian COVID-19 diagnostic tests, and doctors on both sides are sharing data. Despite decades of arguing over where to draw a border, the spread of COVID-19 has highlighted how Israel and the Palestinian areas in the West Bank are in fact one unit in the battle to preserve public health. Handling the challenge requires the sides to collaborate and resist the tendency to focus first on the political.”
The collaboration on the coronavirus outbreak includes the health ministries of both governments, along with the Israeli military liaison. Israel in recent days delivered 250 virus test kits to the West Bank and held training sessions for Palestinian medical workers on how to protect themselves. Israel’s Civil Administration, the military-run authority in Palestinian areas of the West Bank, promised to supply medical equipment and training as needed.
Admitting the potential for enhancing positive relations between Israelis and Palestinians, Israeli Health Ministry Associate Director-General Dr. Itamar Grotto, in referring to the cooperation, confirmed that “this is being done because we don’t have another choice. We have to work together. If you are looking for a positive effect of this event, you could point to this.”
With the realization of the vital importance of cooperation, collaboration, openness, good faith and the genuine need to protect and heal the populations of the area in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, it is to be hoped that this will lead the way to a greater realization that good neighborly relations have the potential to enhance mutual trust and confidence between Palestinians and Israelis.
Continued incitement to hatred, whether through electronic and social media or by senior Palestinian leaders through such mechanisms as Twitter, even at such an important time as the present, has the potential to prejudice and undermine the sincere efforts by all the professional medical authorities on both sides to defeat the virus, for the benefit of Palestinians, Israelis and the whole region.
Alan Baker is director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center and the head of the Global Law Forum. He participated in the negotiation and drafting of the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians, as well as agreements and peace treaties with Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon. He served as legal adviser and deputy director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada.
This article was first published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.