Israel’s vaccination program is morally indefensible

A man flinches as a medical worker in full protective gear swabs his nose

A man is tested for COVID-19 in Gaza. The exclusion of five million Palestinians in occupied territory from Israel’s vaccination program is morally indefensible, according to the UN.

Ashraf Amra APA images

Israel’s exclusion of five million people from its COVID-19 vaccine program continues to raise protest.

This week, the UN called on Israel to ensure “swift and equitable access” to the vaccine for Palestinians who live under its occupation.

Since Israel began its vaccine rollout, Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations have protested that the country is failing in its obligations as an occupying power by not offering the vaccine to the Palestinians of occupied territory.

It is a policy, said Amnesty International on 6 January, that exposes Israel’s “institutional discrimination.”

Israel – and especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing yet another election at the end of March, just when the vaccine program is scheduled to have reached most Israelis – is proud of a program that has seen a reported 10 percent of its population vaccinated in less than a month.

Palestinians with Israeli citizenship are eligible, as are Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Jewish settlers living – in contradiction to international law – in the occupied West Bank.

But Israel’s officials have struggled to explain and intentionally misled when challenged about why it has not extended the program to the five million Palestinians of occupied territory.

Obligations and the blame game

As the occupying power, Israel has a responsibility under international law, including article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to ensure “public health and hygiene in the occupied territory.”

Article 56 makes “particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”

But Israeli officials have argued that the Oslo accords have superceded international law leaving the Palestinian Authority responsible.

Under the Oslo agreements, the PA is supposed to maintain international vaccination standards.

However, that is not the same as responding to a global pandemic. And the 1995 interim agreements specifically and separately mention epidemics calling, in Article 17, on Israel to help the PA combat “epidemics and contagious diseases … [and] … develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents.”

The Israeli human rights organization Gisha has dismissed the idea that the Oslo accords negate Israel’s obligations under international law. Any role played by Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza, Gisha said in a statement earlier this month, “does not absolve Israel from its ultimate responsibility toward Palestinians living under occupation.”

On Thursday, UN human rights experts also rejected that argument.

“The Oslo accords must be interpreted and applied consistent with international law, and cannot derogate from its broad protections,” the experts stated. “The ultimate responsibility for health services remains with the occupying power until the occupation has fully and finally ended.”

Israel’s decision to exclude Palestinians under its rule, according to the UN, is indefensible.

“Morally and legally, this differential access to necessary health care in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century is unacceptable.”

A PA pickle

Israel has also blamed the PA for not asking for help as officials tried to fend off criticism.

“Israel is willing to assist the Palestinians but first it needs to create dialogue with them,” an Israeli defense ministry official told The Jerusalem Post in December. “Until now, unfortunately, this dialogue has not happened. We are still waiting for the Palestinian Authority to engage us on this matter.”

And PA officials themselves muddied the water by sending out mixed signals. One unnamed official told the The Jerusalem Post last month that the PA did not expect Israel to sell them or procure for them any vaccine.

However, this month, the PA’s foreign ministry announced that while the PA had obligations toward its own population, that in no way absolved Israel from its international legal and humanitarian obligations.

“As the illegal occupant of the State of Palestine, Israel has absolute and full control over all the crossings and borders as well as airspace.”

The statement also pointed out that Israel does not in any case permit the PA to operate in occupied East Jerusalem or Area C of the West Bank, which comprises some 60 percent of the area.

Moreover, and in apparent contradiction of its official position of standing ready to help, Israel has reportedly rebuffed an unofficial request from the World Health Organization to make vaccines available to Palestinian medical workers.

A raging pandemic

On the ground, Palestinians fear that Covid-19 is raging out of control.

The PA is cash-strapped and ill able to afford a mass vaccination program without international aid.

Moreover, reduced health care capacity in the occupied West Bank means the area, home to three million Palestinians, only has two freezers capable of storing the Pfizer vaccine, which demands special storage conditions, leaving that particular possibility impractical.

So far, the PA has been unable to offer any vaccines to anyone and while there is talk of agreements with four vaccine makers, no deliveries are expected for weeks.

Especially acute is the problem in the densely populated Gaza Strip, where some 2 million people have been kept on the brink of starvation by an Israeli and Egyptian siege for 14 years.

There, a dilapidated health sector, undermined by the nearly a decade and a half of sanctions, was already struggling to secure enough essential medicines when the first cases of community transmission of COVID-19 were diagnosed.

So far, nearly 170,000 Palestinians in occupied territory have contracted COVID-19. There have been more than 1,800 deaths.

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Omar Karmi

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper.