Overview (Updated to March 19, 2020)
- According to the Facebook page of the Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), every day about 73,000 workers enter Israel from Judea and Samaria. Most of them work in construction, with a minority in other sectors (health, agriculture, care-giving, industry and services). Following the restrictions imposed on the Israeli economy because of the coronavirus crisis, Israeli Defense Minister Naphtali Bennet announced that beginning on March 18, 2020, only Palestinians working in vital sectors will be allowed entry into Israel on the condition that they remain within Israel’s borders for a period of one to two months.
- So far the PA has diagnosed 47 cases of the coronavirus (most of them in the Bethlehem region) and is taking steps to prevent its spread. The Israeli defense minister’s announcement posed a problem for the PA: on the one hand, the PA is concerned that workers will become infected while in Israel and increase the spread of the disease when they return to the PA territories; and on the other hand, work in Israel is an important source of income for the Palestinians, especially given the economic difficulties facing the PA.
- As a way around the problem, the PA does not forbid workers to enter Israel but obligates them to arrange a place to sleep there for one to two months, in coordination with Israel. According to a PA spokesman, as of March 22, 2020, Palestinian workers will not be permitted to enter or exist Israel through the crossings between the PA and Israel. On the other hand, the Palestinian government and senior Palestinian spokesmen called on Palestinians who work in the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria not to go to their places of employment, and even threatened that strict measures would be taken against anyone who disobeyed the decision.
Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Meitar Crossing (south of Hebron) carrying personal belongings for an extended stay (al-Quds, March 19, 2020).
- As for the Gaza Strip, the COGAT announced the closing of the Erez Crossing to and from Israel with the exception of extreme humanitarian emergencies. The Hamas administration, which is taking various steps to prevent an outbreak of coronavirus, announced the closing of the Erez and Rafah Crossings until further notice, with the exception of emergencies. On the other hand, the Kerem Shalom Crossing remains open and active for the delivery of merchandise.
Judea and Samaria
- According to the Israeli media, Israeli Defense Minister Naphtali Bennet decided that as of March 18, 2020, Palestinians workers would be allowed to enter Israel only if they work in vital sectors of the Israeli economy, such as construction, health, agriculture and care-giving. Other sectors will be defined individually by the Ministry of Defense and the National Emergency Authority according to need. Palestinian workers will enter and sleep in Israel for a period of one to two months. All aspects of their stay in Israel will be the responsibility of their employers, in accordance with the obligations agreed on with Israel’s defense agencies. The defense minister also ordered the routine passage of merchandise to continue normally, and to continue the closure of the Bethlehem region (Ynet, March 17, 2020, Israeli TV Channel 7 website, March 17, 2020).
- According to the COGAT’s clarifications, Palestinian workers employed in construction, agriculture, industry and services will be allowed to enter Israel. Building contractors will have to provide the workers with places to sleep in Israel for at least two months. Employers of agricultural, industrial and service-providing workers will have to provide places to sleep for at least one month. Workers in the medical and care-giving sectors will be allowed to enter routinely, but they should have their temperature taken at the crossings and at their places of employment.
- The COGAT also announced that the crossings in the Bethlehem region will remain closed because of the closure imposed on the city (which so far is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the PA territories). Workers in other sectors, merchants and businessmen will not be allowed to enter Israeli territory beginning on March 18, 2020 (COGAT Facebook page in Arabic, March 17, 2020).
- Pursuant to the above instructions, the Israeli construction sector, which was excepted from the strict limitations recently placed on the Israeli economy, is currently looking for places to sleep for about 40,000 Palestinian workers who will continue to work in construction. One possibility is having them sleep in the field schools run by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, which are located throughout the country (Haaretz, TheMarker, March 19, 2020).
- Following the announcement of Israel’s policy, PA Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh held a meeting of the “national emergency committee to face the outbreak of the coronavirus.” He said the PA government gave Palestinian workers in Israel three days to arrange their sleeping arrangements at their places of employment in coordination with their employers. After three days there would be no passing between the Palestinian territories and Israel (Wafa, March 17, 2020).
- According to Shtayyeh, Palestinian workers who work in the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria [estimated at between 25,000 and 30,000] are forbidden to go to work because of concern for their health and the health of their families. That is because, according to the PA, many Israeli settlers are [allegedly] ill with coronavirus. Shtayyeh said Israel was fully responsible for the health of the Palestinians in east Jerusalem because Israel is the “occupying power.” He called on Israel to take all possible measures to protect them. He added that the PA was coordinating with Egypt and Jerusalem to close the bridges and crossings in both directions, with the exception of the passage of merchandise and humanitarian emergencies, while employing the agreed-on cautionary measures (Wafa, March 17, 2020).
Meeting of the “national emergency committee to face the outbreak of the coronavirus,” chaired by Muhammad Shtayyeh (Wafa, March 17, 2020).
- PA spokesman Ibrahim Melhem gave an interview where he related to the defensive measures taken by the Palestinian government:
- The source of every case of the coronavirus in the PA territories is from abroad, and not from the territories themselves. There are, he said, two gaps: the crossings [to Israel] and the borders [with Jordan and Egypt]. Closing the crossings is a national task and citizens have to take every measure, even though they may be difficult. The workers [who work in Israel] are the greatest source of danger for transmitting the coronavirus. The PA has established a joint operations room with the Israelis to deal with the epidemic. Coordination [with Egypt and Jordan] at the borders and contact with Israel enable the PA to employ strict measures to prevent the spread of the epidemic.
- The PA’s security forces will be strict in implementing the government’s decision after the end of the [period of time] given to the workers. The security forces have the capabilities to implement the government’s decisions. Workers who sleep at their places of employment in Israeli will return [to the PA territories] only a month or two after the crisis has ended (Wafa, March 17, 2020). The Palestinian security forces will be stationed at the crossings and on the main roads of the West Bank cities and will prevent the passage of the workers, “All of it done,” he said, “in coordination with the Israeli side. There is a joint operations room for coordinating the issue of the coronavirus at the highest levels.”
- Ibrahim Melhem said he opposed allowing Palestinian workers who work in Israeli communities to enter them on a daily basis. He added, “We warned the workers and demanded that they not go to the settlements because the settlements have turned into focal points for the epidemic” (Agence France-Presse, March 18, 2020). (Note: The ITIC has no information about an exceptional outbreak of the coronavirus in the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria. Ibrahim Melhem’s warning is intended, in ITIC assessment, to frighten the Palestinians who work in the Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria.)
- Abdallah Kamil, the governor of the Salfit district, said that workers who could not go to work would be treated the same way as workers in the public sector. Loan repayments would be deferred for four months, as would the payment dates for checks. That would be conditioned on the worker’s receiving authorization from the local municipality or village council, which would be forwarded to the bank branch, stating that his work in Israel or in an Israeli settlement in Judea and Samaria had been stopped, beginning on the day it had been decided (Facebook page of Abdallah Kamil, March 18, 2020; Wafa, March 18. 2020).
- Abdallah Kamil added, in a Facebook post, that the decision to ban workers from entering the settlements, having contact with them or mingling with them was to be considered clear and strict. Therefore, there was no room for argument, and severe measures would be taken against anyone who disobeyed the decision (Facebook page of Abdallah Kamil, March 18, 2018).
Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Hashmonaim Crossing (west of Ramallah) on their way to work in Israel (Wafa, March 18, 2020).
Palestinian workers carry personal belongings for an extended stay in Israel
(Palinfo Twitter account, March 18, 2020).
The Gaza Strip
- Israel recently authorized the entrance of 7,000 businessmen/workers from the Gaza Strip as part of the lull arrangement being formulated. In view of the threat of the coronavirus the COGAT made it clear that the Erez Crossing would remain closed except for humanitarian emergencies (COGAT Facebook page in Arabic, March 17, 2020).
- The Hamas administration is taking a variety of steps to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in the Gaza Strip, and also announced the closing of the Erez Crossing. Dr. Muhammad Awad, chairman of the Gaza Strip’s ministry of health’s committee monitoring administration activities, held a press conference on March 14, 2020. He said the Erez and Rafah Crossings would be closed in both directions until further notice. Exceptions would be made for [humanitarian] emergencies and life-or-death cases (Facebook page of the Gaza Strip’s ministry of health’s committee monitoring administration activities, March 14, 2020). General Tawfiq Abu Na’im, deputy minister of the interior in the Gaza Strip, said emergency cases would be examined on an individual basis (website of the ministry of the interior in the Gaza Strip, March 14, 2020).
- Iyad al-Buzum, spokesman for the ministry of the interior in the Gaza Strip, said that since March 17, 2020, 131 Palestinians had entered the Gaza Strip through the Erez Crossing, and 349 through the Rafah Crossing. They were all placed in quarantine for 14 days (website of the ministry of the interior in the Gaza Strip, March 18, 2020). On the other hand, the Kerem Shalom Crossing remains open and active for the delivery of merchandise. Israel enabled the delivery of kits for testing for the coronavirus through the Erez Crossing, given by the World Health Organization (WHO) (COGAT Facebook page in Arabic, March 18, 2020).
Coronavirus testing kits, delivered to the Gaza Strip through the Erez Crossing by the WHO (COGAT Facebook page in Arabic March 18, 2020).
 It has to be taken into account that the borders between Israel and the PA territories are not hermetically sealed. Tens of thousands of unauthorized Palestinians may continue to infiltrate into Israel and to work there illegally. ↑
 For an overview of the coronavirus outbreak in the PA territories, see the March 17, 2020 ITIC bulletin, "News of Terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, March 11-17." ↑