Against the backdrop of the Coronavirus crisis, Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin spoke with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, saying the crisis “does not distinguish between people” and adding that the recent cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority on this matter testifies to their ability to cooperate in the future, too. Rivlin’s comments prompt the question of whether the Coronavirus can advance peace and how it might affect conflict areas around the world. The current crisis, and past events, indicate that disasters and epidemics can provide opportunities for parties to a conflict to focus on what they have in common and re-examine their rivalry, but they can also intensify tensions and hostility.
Thus, for example, at the start of the Coronavirus crisis, the spread of the disease spawned racism and xenophobia directed at Chinese people the world over. This was also reflected in the intensification of ethnic tensions in states with a Chinese minority. Unprecedented violence was recorded against the Chinese-Muslim Dungan minority in Kazakhstan, and representatives of the Chinese minority in the Philippines complained of incidents of discrimination and racism. Fear of the virus has also led to isolation and border closings, a sensitive issue in conflict areas that can raise tensions even further. For example, the border between the two parts of Cyprus, first opened in 2003, was closed at the start of the Coronavirus crisis, prompting protests.
Studies point to a link between the spread of disease and civil conflicts. A 2017 study found that exposure to contagious disease increased the risk of a violent civil conflict. An additional study, focused on the Ebola epidemic in western Africa in 2014-2015, pointed to a similar correlation. It should be noted that following the Ebola epidemic in western Africa, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to define the outbreak in this region as a threat to international security and peace. The study determined that in conflict areas, or countries recovering from internal wars, unusual government measures to deal with epidemics can serve as fertile ground for increased tensions and hostility resulting in unrest and violence. In areas where tension and mistrust prevail between various groups or regions and the central regime, such situations can be perceived as an excuse for the government to exercise its power, generating resistance and counter-reaction. In various central Asian states, among them Georgia, Uzbekistan and Kirgizstan, the Corona crisis prompted protests by residents against government measures.
The Corona crisis is monopolizing the attention of all the countries in the world, including the superpowers, making it difficult for the international community to deal with other issues and divert resources to other causes. The restrictions on movement also undermine such efforts. A report by the International Crisis Group argues that the Covid-19 pandemic undermines the ability of international institutions to deliver humanitarian aid, advance diplomatic initiatives and operate peacekeeping forces. It should be emphasized that areas of war and conflict are particularly vulnerable, raising deep concerns about the spread of the epidemic in such countries as Libya, Syria and Afghanistan. This is well illustrated in the difficulties experienced by international organizations in eradicating Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to fighting that prevented access to infected regions and also resulted in injury to medical personnel.
However, along with the risks and negative repercussions, disasters and epidemics can also demonstrate to rivals that they are facing a common enemy and must join forces to confront it, as President Rivlin argued. Agreement on such cooperation could spill over into other issues and serve as a confidence building measures and an eventual turning point in the relationship between sides to a conflict. Such events underscore similarities between rival parties and the immediate need for humanitarian aid, unrelated to politics, and the crisis can turn into an opportunity. Such situations have given rise to what is known as “disaster diplomacy” in which rival parties help each other in a time of crisis as a goodwill gesture. The United Arab Emirates, for example, recently transferred humanitarian relief to Iran, hard hit by Covid-19, despite the tension between these two states.
Such crises can also lead to ceasefires. That was the case, for example, when the “Guinea Worm” disease started spreading in Sudan in 1995, prompting six-month ceasefire between the north and south to tackle the deep crisis afflicting numerous villages. In the current crisis, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres issued a call for a global ceasefire in order to combat the Coronavirus, and warring sides in various conflict areas, such as Yemen, Libya and the Philippines expressed support for the initiative.
The massive 2005 earthquake that hit India and Pakistan, including the disputed territory of Kashmir, provides another example of rivals helping each other. India transferred huge amounts of aid to Pakistan, whose President publicly acknowledged the assistance and offered his thanks. Shortly thereafter, the sides advanced initiatives on linking the two parts of Kashmir – initially, through phone lines connecting the two sides and then free passage in order to provide disaster relief. These moves generated hope, but violence eventually resumed and the “disaster diplomacy” failed to yield a breakthrough.
However, in some cases disasters did result in real, long-term change. A special case in point was the effect of the December 2004 Indian Ocean quake and tsunami on the conflict between Indonesia and the Aceh Province, which was an epicenter of the disaster that killed over 200,000 people. Following the quake, the President of Indonesia lifted the state of emergency imposed on Aceh, and the Free Aceh Movement declared a ceasefire. In early 2005, Indonesia called for negotiations, which were held in Finland and culminated in a peace agreement in August of that year. It cannot be argued that the disaster led to peace, and the breakthrough was the result of many other weighty elements (among them a political change in Indonesia and successful mediation efforts of former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari), but the heavy disaster and the global attention it drew, affected the sides, pushed them to compromise and served as an opportunity for constructive diplomacy.
Turning back to our region, initial indications at the outset of the crisis pointed to encouraging cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians. The sides established a special mechanism for close, ongoing coordination, Israel’s Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon met with his Palestinian counterpart Shukri Bishara to discuss economic aspects of the crisis, and Israel transferred aid and equipment to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. UN envoy Nickolay Mladenov praised the cooperation between the sides. However, at the same time, the Palestinians complained on continued operations of the Israel Defense Forces in Palestinian cities and villages, and Israel complained about Palestinian declarations claiming Israel was working to spread the virus. In addition, Hamas leaders threatened that the spread of the disease in Gaza would lead to an escalation with Israel.
It is too soon to say at this stage how the Coronavirus crisis will play out and how it will impact conflict areas. Examples from around the world illustrate that the link between a humanitarian or health disaster and political tensions could be dangerous. Therefore, the Israel-Palestinian cooperation should be welcomed and the parties should make every effort to avert a deterioration into a harsh health or economic crisis that might increase the threat of escalation. Leaders in both Israel and the Palestinian Authority could learn from efforts made in the past by other rival parties to exploit such crises to advance conciliatory moves and a diplomatic breakthrough.