Israel vaccinates: No jabs for the Palestinians

Lamis El-Sharqawy, Saturday 16 Jan 2021

Amid the coronavirus contagion, Israel’s strategy to confront the pandemic leaves out a large segment of beneficiaries: the Palestinian people

Beit Hanina
A Palestinian womman gets vaccinated against the coronavirus at Clalit Health Services in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Beit Hanina, in the Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem (photo:AFP)

Israel has denied Palestinians access to the vaccine after it rebuffed a World Health Organisation (WHO) vaccine request last week for the Palestinian health workforce as an immediate priority target group, citing shortages at home. Palestinians were deprived of the vaccine as Israel prioritised only Israeli settlers.

While in late December, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana blatantly instructed prison officials to stop vaccinating Palestinian inmates against Covid-19 until further notice, and to only vaccinate prison staff.

Israel is being hailed at home for breaking the record for the rapid inoculation programme by vaccinating more of its population against Covid-19 than any other country in a very short time, but it only vaccinates Israeli citizens, including Jewish settlers who live in the West Bank, in addition to Palestinians who are residents of East Jerusalem.

Another reason for Israel being the second fastest nation to distribute the vaccine, with inoculation stations open every day, including on the Sabbath, is Prime Minister Netanyahu’s campaign for reelection on 23 March, which is centred on handling the virus crisis in an attempt to whitewash the economic hardship that occurred during the pandemic and enhance the premier’s image that was tarnished by a number of corruption trials.

This explains why the Israeli government has invested in the vaccine deals by purchasing doses at higher price than other countries to provide the vaccine to its population of roughly nine million, as it purchased at $62 instead of $19.50 per dose, according to Israeli officials speaking to the public broadcaster Kan but staying anonymous. Israeli Finance Minister Israel Katz said the higher price was necessary considering Israel was competing with much larger countries.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu has already hinted that his political influence and friendship with Pfizer’s CEO facilitated obtaining a cache of the vaccine before many countries.

Despite other countries, including the US, having administered more doses, none has vaccinated a larger percentage of its population.

On the other side, the West Bank and Gaza depend on aid to survive and have a weak health and logistical infrastructure, as the Palestinian economy was hit hard during the coronavirus lockdown. They have therefore asked others, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and the European Union, for assistance. The Palestinian Authority (PA) is speaking to some vaccine developers directly, but the affordability remains questionable.

One more issue is that Palestine can’t manage the logistics of storing the vaccine as the Gaza Strip currently receives about eight hours of electricity per day. In addition, any vaccine provider must have Israel’s permission before allowing the vaccine in Palestinian territories.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly, Aimee Shalan, chief executive officer of Medical Aid for Palestinians believes the Israeli occupation and its effects on Palestine’s shrinking economy is the reason behind the vaccine crisis today.

“The Palestinian healthcare system is facing a severe financial crisis that is a result of Israel’s more than 50 years of occupation as well as 13 years of illegal blockade in Gaza. It is therefore imperative that Israel should ensure that Palestinians have access to coronavirus vaccines of the same quality it is providing to its own citizens.”

Doubting the traditional donors’ capacity to provide assistance to Palestinians under such a crisis, Yara Asi, a policy analyst at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, and a scholar at the Department of Health Management and Informatics University of Central Florida, told the Weekly: “The situation for Palestinians is already quite poor. Further, international donors who usually support Palestinian social services are stretched to the limit because so many nations need help at this time. Two more months without vaccines,” she warned, “will be two more months of strain on Palestinian healthcare, excess death and economic fallout.”

Rights and medical groups have decried Israel’s decision to leave Palestinians out in the cold to face unknown destiny by excluding those living in Gaza and the West Bank and even prison inmates from taking the vaccine, in a clear violation of human rights.

The large gap between the Israelis’ easy access to vaccines supported by their leadership as it handles the virus crisis and the Palestinians’ struggle to obtain it, has outraged public opinion with the move described as racist and featuring apartheid.

 Only for the sake of the country’s interest, stated Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, would Israel provide a helping hand in this issue.

A group of some 200 rabbis have signed a petition by the Rabbis for Human Rights Organisation urging Israel to hasten the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to the Palestinian population.

According to international law, Amnesty International called on Israel to provide coronavirus vaccine doses to Palestinians as the current roll-out plan covers only citizens of Israel, including Israeli settlers living inside the West Bank, and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.

ReliefWeb, the humanitarian information portal under the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), released a joint statement with other international organisations and Israeli right advocacy group urging Israel to “live up to its legal obligations”.

However, all these condemnations are in vain as according to Ghada Karmi, an NHS specialist in public health based in London, speaking to the Weekly: “Condemning Israel’s behaviour will make no difference because the international community has never punished Israel for any of its crimes against the Palestinians before and won’t decide on this soon.”

But Shalan believes the international community can make a difference. She told the Weekly, “the international community must facilitate essential Covid-19 healthcare supplies, and influential states like the UK also have a duty to ensure Israel’s commitment to human rights law.”

The contrast between the two countries raise questions about the legal obligations of Israel, as an occupation force, towards Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza which are occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War.

The Israeli government said it is not aware of any request from the Palestinian Authority either formal or informal on the subject. 

According to Asi, “whether the PA asked or not, doesn’t negate Israel’s legal obligation. No doubt that Israel is the entity that has full control over Palestinians. The PA does have a functional Ministry of Health, but they cannot fully control what enters their territories. With both this logistical and legal duty, Israel is responsible for providing Palestinians with vaccine supplies,” she told the Weekly.

Beyond that, the Palestinian Authority is already working on brokering vaccine deals away from the Israeli intervention, with the medical firms AstraZeneca, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and Russia, in addition to the WHO COVAX programme. However, “these supplies may take many months to arrive, and are not sufficient to address vaccination needs in the West Bank and Gaza,” Shalan added. 

Israeli officials claim the Palestinian Authority is in charge of the citizens’ health care, including procuring vaccines, under the terms of the Oslo Accords.

However, the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates Israel’s responsibility to supply vaccines to Palestinians living under its occupation.

“Israel is an occupying power and subject to the Geneva Conventions that stipulate its responsibility for the health and welfare of people under occupation,” Karmi added. 

For Asi says Israel bears the whole responsibility of treating the Palestinians as the Palestinian state has never had autonomous authority. “Israel as the recoginsable occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, is responsible for providing Palestinians with health and other social support under the 4th Geneva Convention. The Oslo Accords were drafted more than 25 years ago as a five-year interim deal that was meant to lead to an autonomous Palestinian state, which did not happen.”

About one million Israelis have received Covid-19 vaccination shots. The country aims to vaccinate 25 per cent of the population by the end of January. According to official statements, of the nearly five million Palestinian citizens and medics in the Occupied West Bank and Gaza, not one has received a jab. Over 146,000 Palestinians have been infected with the coronavirus and over 1,550 have died. Nearly 8,000 Palestinian medics have reportedly been infected, according to Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the WHO’s mission to the Palestinians.

Israel is planning to achieve herd immunity by the end of spring or midsummer, according to a statement by the Israeli Health Ministry.

 According to health estimates, Tel Aviv has purchased eight million doses from Pfizer, of which about four million have been received so far.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 January, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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