Christian Adversary Ignores Israeli Efforts to Combat COVID-19

If there was any hope that the COVID-19 pandemic would get anti-Israel commentators in the United Church of Christ to dial back or tone down their animus toward the Jewish state, it was dashed on the afternoon of Thursday, April 17, 2020.

It was dashed when Rev. Dr. Peter Makari, Executive for the Middle East and Europe for the Common Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ, gave a video briefing about the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on countries in the Middle East. The folks who logged onto the Zoom webinar were served up the all-too-predictable “Israel bad, everyone else innocent” narrative about the Middle East that Makari has promoted for years.

During his talk, Makari portrayed Israel and the United States as villains blocking efforts to counter the virus in Iran, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, when in fact the United States and Israel have invested substantial resources into combating the viruses in those locations.

In addition to omitting the role the Assad regime has played in aggravating the pandemic in Syria, Makari ignored altogether the role that the Iranian government has played in ensuring the mass infection of the COVID-19 virus in its own citizens and its spread to other countries in the region.

He also failed to mention how Iranian and Palestinian leaders have used the COVID-19 pandemic to broadcast modern-day blood libels about Israel, accusing the Jewish state of intentionally spreading the virus even as Israel has worked with the Palestinian Authority and spent millions of shekels to prevent its spread in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

In sum, Makari played a disinformation game during his talk, portraying Iranian and Palestinian leaders who have made the COVID-19 problem worse as victims while casting the countries trying to fix the problem as the villains.

Overview

Makari’s presentation was the first of five briefings about the COVID-19 virus offered by the Global Ministries Board, which is the overseas arm of the two denominations mentioned above and which sends activists to countries throughout the world. (Note: When Global Ministries sends activists to the Holy Land, they are often detailed to work with institutions that promote anti-israel propaganda such as Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center or the YWCA in Jerusalem.)

The stated goal of Makari’s presentation was to describe how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting Global Ministries’ “partner” organizations throughout the region the Middle East. As Makari offered these descriptions, he made passing references to the political situation in the various countries in the region. It was in these references that Makari’s anti-Israel animus and indifference to Arab and Muslim misdeeds became apparent.

Egypt

In his summary of what is happening in Egypt, Makari recounted that prior to the COVID-19 crisis, two Coptic Christian organizations were already helping citizens of that country deal with the aftereffects of severe flooding caused by heavy rains. He then described in vague terms events that took place in Cairo a few weeks ago:

You may have read in the last few days, the firefight that happened in the streets of Cairo in the {al-] Amiyira District where police went in because of the suspicion of a cell of terrorists that might have disrupted Easter celebrations. So even in the midst of COVID-19, flooding, and the possibility of disruption in the country exists.

The word Makari used to describe the intended action of the alleged terrorists (“disrupt”) is a dishonest euphemism for “murder.” A Reuters article about the firefight reported the following:

An Egyptian policeman and seven suspected militants were killed late on Tuesday in an exchange of gunfire after the ministry of interior received information about potential Easter attacks against Coptic Christians, the ministry said.

It said three other policemen had also been wounded.

The ministry’s statement said it had received information “that there is a terrorist cell, whose elements embrace Takfiri ideology, using several areas as a shelter in eastern and southern Cairo as a starting point to carry out terrorist operations” against the country’s Coptic Christians during the Holy Week and Easter Sunday.

The report indicates that the alleged terrorists didn’t want to just “disrupt” Easter services, as Makari described it. They allegedly wanted to murder Christians in a church on one of their holidays, just as they have so many times in the past in Egypt.

Readers should know that questions have been raised over the government’s story about the firefight. Churches and mosques have been closed in Egypt since March 21, 2020, prompting people to ask: how did the alleged gunmen expect to kill a bunch of Christians during Easter services if their churches are empty?

It’s not reasonable to expect Makari to go into turn-of-the-screw detail on events in Egypt in a 20-minute briefing about the entire Middle East, but his euphemistic treatment of the motives of the alleged terrorists is pretty troubling.

“Disrupt” is not a legitimate synonym for murder.

Syria

Makari’s description of COVID-19 related events in Syria was as follows:

For the last 10 years, the Syrian war has raged and we know that the number of refugees is high. More than half the country has been displaced, with 6.2 million Syrians internally and another five and a half million refugees displaced throughout the Middle East.

It’s a pretty short description that leaves out the dire circumstances faced by the folks who live under the rule of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, who has maintained control of his country through a civil war that has cost more than 500,000 people their lives, many of them victims of gas attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government against its own citizens.

A recent article in The Guardian, published a few days before Makari’s briefing, lays much of the blame for COVID-19’s impact in Syria on Assad himself.

While Syria’s broken healthcare system cannot cope with a major outbreak, relief from sanctions – which do not target the medical sector – is unlikely to reach Syrian civilians.

“Even if sanctions are lifted, the regime will remain broke. At a time of global competition for a limited supply of [protective equipment], ventilators and testing kits, when the USA is struggling to secure supplies, how will Syria be able to do so?” said Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a US thinktank.

“The regime has never prioritised the health of its citizenry or even its core support base over its ability to wage warfare. Healthcare in the Syrian army and militias is terrible.”

Later in his talk, Makari described Global Ministries efforts to convince decision makers in Washington, D.C. to end sanctions that made it difficult to get medical aid into Syria. But as the article linked to above indicates, such sanctions do not exist.

Israel and the Palestinians

One of 15 ventilators brought into Gaza on April 22, 2020. (COGAT Photo)

In his description of what is happening in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip, Makari reported that “for the two million Palestinians living in Gaza, only 60 ventilators were available. And for the millions of people living in the West Bank, only 205 ventilators were available.”

Makari suggested that Israel is somehow hindering the passage of badly needed medical supplies into the Gaza Strip. In fact, Israeli policy allow medical supplies into Gaza as long as they do not have a “dual use,” meaning they can’t be used to fabricate weapons to attack Israel. In fact, Israeli officials recently announced that they allowed more than 88 tons of medical supplies into the Gaza Strip in the course of one week.

Moreover, on April 2, 2020, more than two weeks before Makari’s presentation, Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas’s political bureau in the Gaza Strip, had declared, “We are ready for the worst-case scenario […] Hamas has bought 30 ventilators and there are donations and initiatives to increase the number of ventilators.” It’s interesting to note that Makari did not mention Yahya Sinwar’s threats that Hamas would not hesitate to launch terror attacks against Israel to force the Jewish state to give it the ventilators it needs.

Makari also suggested that Palestinians are unable to gain access to hospitals in Israel during the COVID-19 crisis. In particular, he lamented the inability of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza to get treated at the [Al] Makassed Hospital and the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem in light of the COVID-19 related closures imposed once the pandemic hit, adding that “even before the closures, Palestinians in the West Bank and certainly those in Gaza didn’t have easy access to those facilities and now that there is a strict closure those facilities are even harder to access.”

A report issued by the World Health Organization  for February 2020 indicates that nearly 70 percent of the patients from the Gaza Strip who asked to be allowed into Israel for medical treatment were allowed in, with 51 percent of the requests to accompany these patients being approved by Israeli officials. The rates for the West Bank are much higher on both scores, which makes sense because rockets and terror attacks have not been launched against Israel from this territory to the extent that they have been from Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Makari added that in the midst of the crisis, the Israelis are demolishing homes in the West Bank. But on the contrary, on April 2, 2020, approximately two weeks before Makari’s briefing, the Jerusalem Post reported that Israeli officials had halted home demolitions in response to the COVID-19 crisis.

The way Makari tells it, it sounds as if Israel is somehow at fault for the difficulties Hamas is experiencing in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, as if Hamas has not squandered millions of dollars in foreign aid on building attack tunnels into Israel and as if Israel has not trained doctors in Gaza how to deal with the COVID-19 virus.

Again, it’s not reasonable to expect Makari to recount every detail associated with the COVID-19 crisis, but in light of all these facts, it’s pretty clear that he gave his listeners a distorted view of the events on the ground. Toward the end of his talk, Makari asked his listeners to write to Congress, asking lawmakers to “use their good offices to pressure Israel to end the blockade of Gaza so that Palestinians there can move freely to West Bank and East Jerusalem to gain access to medicine and medical supplies, health care, and other basic requirements.”

Makari speaks as if Israel is obstructing Palestinian efforts to stop the virus. But that’s not the story told by the UN. As the UN News Agency reported more than two weeks before Makari’s briefing, that Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, has praised Israeli and Palestinian authorities for their joint effort to combat the pandemic. Mladenov, who has been very critical of Israel in the past stated:

Since the beginning of the crisis, Israel has allowed the entry of critical supplies and equipment into Gaza: examples of critical supplies include swabs for collection of samples and other laboratory supplies required for COVID-19 testing, and Personal Protective Equipment to protect health workers.

The statement also noted Israel’s cooperation in allowing health workers and other personnel involved in the COVID-19 response to move in and out of the West Bank and Gaza.

This would seem like a sign of hope in the Holy Land, but for one reason or another, Makari tells a story of Israeli villainy that is clearly contradicted by the facts.

Why?

Question of Sanctions on Syria, Iran

Makari also told a story of the United States working to hinder Syria’s ability to respond to COVID-19. He  asked his listeners to lobby against American-imposed sanctions that allegedly hinder the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic. Stating accurately that “the potential impact of the virus there is staggering,” Makari declared that “the U.S. should lift sanctions that prohibit the import and purchase of badly needed medicines and assure banks that such transactions will not trigger a reprisal.”

A press release issued by the U.S. State Department on April 16, 2020 reports that America has directed nearly $18 million in humanitarian assistance to counter the spread of the COVID-19 virus in recent months and that “Humanitarian assistance, including medicines and medical supplies, is exempt from any current sanctions across all areas of Syria.”

Makari also described how church organizations in the U.S. are calling for sanctions against Iran to be lifted to allow for a more effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sanctions, Makari said,  “have caused a shortage of medicines, medical supplies and equipment in Iran.”

There are a number of legitimate challenges to this narrative. First off, since 2012 the Iranian government has, according to the U.S. State Department, ”spent over $16 billion to fund its terror proxies abroad while Iranian healthcare services have remained woefully underfunded. This led the Iranian Health Minister to resign in January 2019 in protest of repeated health budget cuts.” Moreover, the Iranian government recently ejected a contingent of physicians from Doctors Without Borders.

All this raises two obvious questions: first, just how serious are Iranian officials in their desire to combat COVID-19? And second, why is Rev. Dr. Makari so intent on running interference for Iran while assailing Israel’s response to the pandemic, which was lauded by the UN?

Something’s not right here.