Bird flu forces Israeli-Palestinian cooperation

Thu Mar 23, 12:26 PM ET

The discovery of deadly bird flu in both Israel and the Palestinian territories is pushing the two sides to work together despite plummeting relations as Hamas prepares for government.

Israel confirmed Thursday that the H5N1 strain that is dangerous to humans had been found in poultry in a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, hot on the heels of its detection in both the Gaza Strip and six farms inside Israel.

Israeli officials said cooperation with the Palestinians on bird flu so far had been "strong and tight" and said a way needed to be found for that to continue even after a Hamas-dominated government takes power on Monday because of the threat to human health.

"The moment they had suspicions, they gave us the samples," said the spokesman for the Israeli coordination team, Shlomo Dror, referring to specimens of dead poultry from Gaza which tested positive in Israeli laboratories Wednesday.

"We told them: ‘Everything you need, tell us and we will give you’."

Asked whether cooperation would end when the new Hamas-led government is sworn in, Dror replied: "We are not speaking with Hamas, as long as they are committed to the destruction of Israel.

"We will have to find a way to deal with the bird flu issue, maybe through international organizations. But we will find a way to speak to the Palestinians — there are things you have to coordinate, this flu can kill people."

Dror acknowledged that the radical Islamists of Hamas could block coordination through third parties, particularly as Israel no longer had any presence inside Gaza since last year’s withdrawal of troops and settlers.

"Of course Hamas can interfere and object. If they decide tomorrow to cut the coordination they can do it."

But he stressed that the bird flu virus, which has so far been found only in poultry, posed a more serious threat to human health among the Palestinians than among Israelis.

"The situation in Gaza is more delicate than in Israel because of the economic situation and also the fact that people are living with chickens."

The deputy agriculture minister in the outgoing Palestinian government, Azzam Tbeileh, said Israel had an obligation to help under international law because the territories remained under its occupation.

"It’s the occupation’s responsibility. We don’t have vaccines and protective suits," Tbeileh said.

"We are going to maintain the highest degree of coordination and cooperation with the Israelis but there are huge difficulties. We live under occupation and there are roadblocks. Even I have to go through the roadblocks."

The official stressed that it was in Israel’s interest to cooperate.

"This virus knows no boundaries, nor is kept out by the separation wall" that Israel is building the length of the West Bank, he said.

Jordan declared a state of maximum alert Thursday following the discovery of the bird flu virus in the Jordan Valley Jewish settlement of Beqaot just across the river.

Israel has banned all exports of poultry products but the European Commission nonetheless extended an imports ban Thursday until the end of July.

Western donors, who have threatened to withhold financial assistance from a Hamas-led government unless it renounces violence and signs up to the peace process with Israel, have a similar problem in helping fight the outbreak in the Palestinian territories.

Aid organization CARE International has been working with both the Palestinian authorities and foreign governments and agencies.

"There was a meeting with donors," said Ayman Shwaibi, the group’s bird flu coordinator.

"I know that most of them, like the European Union, the World Bank and the (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization are interested in helping the Palestinians to fight the virus," he said.

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