Why Palestinians stopped listening to their leaders at the height of a pandemic

For years, Palestinians had been losing trust in their leadership for its corruption and failure to end the occupation. Then COVID-19 hit.

Palestinians attend the funeral of a family member who died after being infected with COVID-19, near the West Bank town of Hebron, July 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinians attend the funeral of a family member who died after being infected with COVID-19, near the West Bank town of Hebron, July 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

When COVID-19 first struck in early 2020, initial fears and uncertainties led to total shutdowns worldwide. The occupied Palestinian territories were no exception. Graduation parties were cancelled, Ramadan celebrations were muted, and wedding venues were shuttered. This was a new virus with unknown consequences; people were scared, and initial compliance was high. In April 2020, an astounding 96 percent of Palestinians supported strict curfew measures to control the spread of the pandemic — a rare consensus in a geographically and politically divided society.

Yet over the summer, the gatherings came back. Humanitarian agencies and Palestinian officials rang alarm bells, but to no avail. It was inevitable, then, that after an initial lull in cases in the spring, the rate of infection increased dramatically in the summer and fall. Officials in Gaza were warning of the collapse of the strip’s health system. In the West Bank, hospitals were being adapted to serve only COVID-19 patients in hard hit areas after the Palestinian health minister warned that more than 60 percent of cases were due to community transmission. It was clear the situation was becoming dire.

While most world leaders who at least attempted to control the virus were temporarily rewarded by their citizens with higher approval ratings, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas remains unpopular. For years, more than half of the Palestinian population has wanted Abbas to resign, but by the end of 2020, a full two-thirds of Palestinians demanded his resignation. Palestinians have also lost faith in major political initiatives, including the ability of their government to unify between Hamas and the PA, as well as the potential of the Arab Peace Initiative to bring a resolution. Only one third of Palestinians report having strong institutional trust in government at all.

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What does this flailing trust in institutions have to do with COVID-19? After all, most countries experienced second, third, and even fourth waves of the virus since it erupted. Ironically, as the pandemic worsened, many people began flouting the guidelines on social gatherings and mask-wearing, largely due to poor public health messaging and pandemic fatigue. But higher levels of confidence in institutions predicted compliance in many countries, including China, Israel, Brazil, throughout Europe, the U.K., and the United States.

Mistrust, misinformation, and conspiracy theories

While public polling on institutional trust and compliance with public health guidelines in the occupied territories is yet to be conducted, evidence from previous outbreaks offers some obvious parallels. Studies indicate that trust in government, especially in times of crisis, is highly predictive of citizens’ willingness to change their behaviors in a pandemic (although more work is needed in low-income states).

Palestinian security forces guard a checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank city of Hebron on December 10, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian security forces guard a checkpoint at the entrance to the West Bank city of Hebron on December 10, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

During the Ebola crisis in parts of Africa, for example, studies showed that a lack of compliance with restrictions was based more on a lack of trust in government than on a failure to understand how the virus spread, as had been assumed. Further, in populations that distrusted political authorities, felt excluded by the system, and reported poor experiences with their healthcare system, even the most basic public health advice became politicized, as is common in conflict-affected areas.

From the onset of the pandemic, public mistrust in official sources was recognized as a challenge. Almost immediately after declaring the burgeoning respiratory virus a “pandemic” in the spring, the World Health Organization similarly recognized the threats of an “infodemic,” where an overwhelming amount of misleading, false, and even inflammatory information disperses through social media and other communication platforms such as WhatsApp. These falsehoods may then be presented as news or analysis through dishonest news outlets, which further cements the legitimacy of such false claims.

This is not unique to conflict-affected states or the occupied Palestinian territories specifically; combatting COVID-19-related misinformation has become a global priority. However, countries with a fragile citizen-state relationship are riper for conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories allow populations living in chaotic environments to make sense of seemingly nonsensical events. Additionally, people with high levels of stress and anxiety, which many studies have found in the Palestinian population, also contribute to the proliferation of conspiracy theories.

Palestinian medical teams at the COVID-19 war at Dura Hospital in the West Bank city of Dura, near Hebron, July 9, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian medical teams at the COVID-19 war at Dura Hospital in the West Bank city of Dura, near Hebron, July 9, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Early in the pandemic, reports found a series of fallacious theories about COVID-19 in Palestine; from (false) miracle cures to wild speculation about the virus’ origin. With the advent of a vaccine, misinformation and fear have led to lower-than-expected vaccination rates among Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the first Palestinians living under occupation to have access to the vaccine.  To counter this misinformation, the International Committee of the Red Cross recruited Palestinian social media influencers to encourage people to wear masks and stay home when feeling ill. This highlights the need to go outside official channels when releasing important information people should trust.

How did Palestinians lose trust?

Few populations have a health system as poorly equipped to handle a public health crisis as Palestinians. Aside from the usual health-related obstacles faced by all fragile or conflict-affected states, Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza are living under military occupation and blockade, which limits their ability to build a strong national health system.

Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh at a hospital in Nablus, January 16, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)
Palestinian Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh at a hospital in Nablus, January 16, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Few countries are also as poorly served by governance bodies at all levels — local, national, international. The Palestinian government is made up of a tangle of different and often conflicting political groups. Although Palestinian leaders have undoubtedly been stymied by their inability to control their economy, health system, and borders due to Israel’s restrictions, they have also done little to reform their institutions with the limited power and resources they do have. This has not gone unnoticed by international observers or Palestinians themselves. Just a few years after its inception, the PA already had a reputation for waste and corruption, and Palestinians were losing faith in it.

Israel’s role as the occupying power, recognized by almost all countries and international bodies and reiterated by the United Nations at the beginning of the pandemic, gives it unique responsibilities to provide for Palestinian health under the Geneva Conventions. But the Oslo Accords, meant to give Palestinians a state within five years of its passage in the mid-1990s, led to a muddled maze of authority that often leaves the provision of essential services to Palestinian civil society groups and humanitarian organizations. In fact, Israeli officials the Oslo Accords to argue that, legally, their responsibility for the health of Palestinians has shifted to the PA, and that the Geneva Conventions no longer apply — even in the absence of a sovereign Palestinian state.

Other provisions from Oslo that were meant to benefit Palestinians, from water rights to settlement freezes, were also largely ignored. This cherry-picking of what Oslo means 25 years later has eroded Palestinian faith in such international agreements, and their faith in the Palestinian government that signed them and still adheres to many of their principles, despite their obvious failure to bring Palestinians closer to justice. The decades of peace negotiations that followed Oslo have only further entrenched Israeli colonization across Palestine.

Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Mitar checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 3, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Mitar checkpoint in the West Bank city of Hebron, on May 3, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

With regard to COVID-19, Israel has provided some supplies, training, and other aid to Palestinians. But this serves as little more than diplomatic theatre when the real issues preventing Palestinian development, namely the siege of Gaza and occupation of the West Bank, persist. In fact, almost no high-level discussion of dealing with the pandemic in the occupied territories really contends with these issues seriously; they are mentioned as obstacles to virus containment as casually as mask mandates or vaccine distribution, rather than a decades-long affront to human rights and justice that created fertile ground for a public health crisis in the first place.

Cracks exposed

Thus far, the focus of this analysis has been on the trust of citizens in their public institutions, which, for Palestinians, is rightfully poor. Yet pandemics require a unique form of bilateral trust, where institutions also must also have trust in their citizenry. Decades of creeping authoritarianism in Palestinian governance demonstrates that, just as the people do not trust the government, the government does not trust the people. The PA understands that its existence is predicated on its ability to maintain security coordination with Israel, which results in the monitoring, repression, and harassment of its own citizens.

While democracies have struggled to contain COVID-19, they have largely performed better than authoritarian states that have suddenly had to manage an enemy they cannot insult, deport, or arrest. Weaknesses in governance are never clearer than in a crisis, and the PA’s inability to act and make autonomous decisions about public health management during this pandemic may lead some Palestinians to wonder exactly what their government is doing, if it can neither push for a just political resolution nor protect the health of its own people.

Few countries have handled the coronavirus well. Countries that have — like Taiwan, Iceland, and New Zealand — engaged early in cooperative and transparent strategies that leveraged and, in fact, built public trust as the pandemic unfolded. They invested heavily in testing, distributed masks, enforced strict border controls, and used technology and social media to inform the public of developments in their response. The PA used its security forces to impose movement restrictions early in the pandemic, and Hamas instituted strict quarantine mechanisms for arrivals into Gaza.

Workers disinfect a street in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 22, 2020, as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Workers disinfect a street in the West Bank city of Hebron, June 22, 2020, as part of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

These techniques were initially effective, yet nine months later, it is apparent that in the context of siege and occupation, even the highest performance by Palestinian governance bodies would have still fallen short.

The present is bleak but may set the stage for a new era in the region. The failure of the PA and Hamas to bring tangible benefits to the people under their administration has galvanized Palestinian youth, who are less tied to the status quo and are hungry for innovation and creativity in seeking solutions. Many see their struggle not as part of a religious or nationalist cause, but as part of a global, grassroots effort to resist oppressive regimes and hold power to account. Hopefully, once marginalized groups begin to recover from the public health crisis, they can build something new from the ashes of the year lost to the pandemic — from the United States, to the UK, to Brazil, to Turkey, to Palestine.