Israel belatedly to offer Palestinian prisoners vaccine

Man wearing protective gear places swab in test tube

A Palestinian medical worker conducting coronavirus testing at a mosque in Deir al-Balah in the Gaza Strip on 11 January. 

Ashraf Amra APA images

After weeks of excluding Palestinian prisoners in its inoculation campaign, Israel is set to begin vaccinating them this week.

This comes amid a sharp rise in the number of new coronavirus infections among Palestinian prisoners in recent days.

Dozens of detainees tested positive at the Rimon prison in southern Israel in under one week, bringing the total number of cases recorded among Palestinian prisoners since the beginning of the pandemic to more than 265, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Club.

At least three inmates at the Ashkelon prison received the vaccine so far this week.

Israel’s public security minister, Amir Ohana, last month had directed the health ministry not to include so-called security prisoners – all of whom are Palestinian – in the second priority group of inoculations. This contradicted health ministry directives, which have deemed prisoners generally as at high risk of exposure.

Israel’s attorney general Avichai Mandelblit reportedly challenged Ohana’s decision, highlighting the “real urgency” of the recent spike in cases among the Palestinian prison population.

Adalah, Physicians for Human Rights - Israel, HaMoked and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel filed a petition at Israel’s highest court earlier this month demanding Palestinian prisoners be vaccinated.

Israel holds both children and adults in overcrowded conditions and subjects them to medical neglect, systematic torture and lack of proper ventilation.

Israel’s high court ruled last year that Palestinian prisoners have no right to physical distancing to protect against the pandemic.

As of December, Israel was holding 4,400 Palestinians in detention including 160 children. Around 440 of those detained were being held without charge or trial.

So far, over 172,000 Palestinians in occupied territory have tested positive for the new coronavirus. There have been more than 1,900 deaths.

“Discriminatory, unlawful, and racist”

But while Israel is praised internationally for having started the vaccination of nearly 30 percent of its citizens, its inoculation program does not extend to five million Palestinians under Israeli occupation.

In Israel, if you are at least 45 years old, you qualify for the first dose of the vaccine against the new coronavirus. You do not need to be ill, an essential worker or a healthcare provider.

Even if you are a settler living unlawfully in illegal Jewish-only colonies in the occupied West Bank, you are eligible to receive the vaccine.

So long as you are not a Palestinian living in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip, your turn will soon come as different age groups and priorities roll out in coming weeks.

Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations are sounding the alarm to what Amnesty International called Israel’s “institutionalized discrimination.”

“[P]eople on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir stated.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch called on Israel to provide vaccines to the five million Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Meanwhile, a World Health Organization official said that he has “concerns” over Israel’s distribution of the vaccine.

“We’ve raised a number of public health concerns and equity concerns about this unequal distribution of vaccines or unequal access to vaccines,” Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the WHO office in Jerusalem, told The Associated Press on Monday.

Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq, joined by more than 100 Palestinian human rights and civil society organizations, called Israel’s vaccine policy “discriminatory, unlawful, and racist” due to its complete disregard for its obligations towards Palestinian healthcare.

US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib told Democracy Now on Tuesday that “Israel is a racist state and that they would deny Palestinians, like my grandmother, access to a vaccine.”

Tlaib said Israel’s continued policy of discrimination “reiterates what the Palestinian people and even human rights groups have been telling us, is that this is an apartheid state.”

Letter to Pfizer

Al-Haq sent a letter to pharmaceutical company Pfizer last week to raise the alarm about Israel’s “discriminatory use” of the vaccine.

The group warned that Israel’s use of the vaccine may be violating Pfizer’s human rights policy and “may moreover amount to a targeted policy of racial discrimination.”

The human rights group pointed to Israel’s “institutionalized racial domination and oppression” of Palestinians in occupied territory and inside Israel.

“Israel is leveraging the use of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine to further entrench these injustices, as it has done throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Al-Haq’s letter asked if Pfizer had received assurances from Israel that it would distribute the vaccine in accordance with international human rights standards. The group called on the pharmaceutical company to make a public statement “stressing that all peoples under Israel’s effective control must have their inalienable right to health respected and vindicated.”


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.