Israel denying Covid vaccine to Palestinians is medical apartheid

Why is Israel denying Covid vaccine to Palestinians? Two words: Medical apartheid
6 min read
07 Jan, 2021
Comment: Israel's claim that the PA is responsible for vaccinating occupied Palestinians reveals a cold disregard for their heath, and for international law, writes Muhammad Shehada.
'Palestinian public health has never been of any real concern to Israel' writes Shehada [Getty]
As Israel celebrates its rapid and record-setting Covid-19 vaccination rollout, critics have rightly been pointing out the one crucial element that was strikingly missing in the operation: occupied Palestinians. 

Israeli settlers throughout the West Bank have been receiving the Pfizer vaccine on time, while Palestinians living in the same area under Israel's control and military rule, were entirely left out.

Amnesty International deemed this situation an example of "institutionalised discrimination that defines the Israeli government's policy towards Palestinians," where the lives of Israeli settlers are valued more than Palestinians'. Similarly, multiple leading health and human rights organisations slammed Israel for depriving the Palestinians of the vaccine; a ludicrous selectivity, if not from a humanitarian perspective, then from a public health perspective where both populations share the same geographical space.

Occupation whitewashers quickly took up an aggressive pushback against the argument that Palestinians' health should be of equal value to Israelis'. One widely promoted article from the centre-right newspaper the Jerusalem Post confidently concludes that any criticism that Israel is denying Palestinians the vaccine is inherently antisemitic, as it fits into the "centuries-old antisemitic libel that Jews spread diseases."

This argument was shared by 
Israeli diplomats and hasbarists, while the liberal pro-Israel Jewish lobby group, JStreet, has said that Israel is morally and legally obligated to "ensure that all residents of the territory it rules over receive necessary medical services."

It's ludicrous selectivity, if not from a humanitarian perspective, then from a public health perspective where both populations share the same geographical space

In essence, the Israeli pushback against calls to vaccinate occupied Palestinians rests on two arguments. First, that the Palestinian Authority didn't ask for Israel's help when it ordered the vaccine, as it suspended its relations with Israel at the time. Second, that under the 1993 Oslo accords, the PA is responsible for healthcare, including vaccinations. Both arguments collapse upon examination.

The notion that Israel was waiting on the PA to request its help in order to go ahead with vaccinating Palestinians is preposterous at best. Israel seldom considers the PA's view, when for instance, it unilaterally decides to withhold large chunks of the PA's tax revenues, let alone when it comes to an issue of public safety.

Israel was good at offering health-related improvements to Palestinians without waiting on the PA when it suited its interests. For instance, Israeli companies offered the PA 20 experimental vaccine doses to try on Palestinians. In Gaza, as the besieged enclave is ravaged by the pandemic, Netanyahu's government tried to exploit Gaza's medical needs as a bargaining chip with Hamas to release Israelis it holds captive.

Had Israel regarded Palestinians as humans whose life matters, it could have easily included them in its vaccination programme without waiting on the PA. Nothing suggests that the PA - which works tirelessly to maintain Israel's security - would have said no to receiving the vaccine had Israel provided it.

Read more: Netanyahu court date postponed amid coronavirus lockdown

But Palestinian public health has never been of any real concern to Israel, whose defense establishment regularly denies security permits to Gazan cancer patients hoping to receive treatment in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel's army frequently raids Palestinian hospitals across the West Bank at will, even firing stun grenades and tear gas inside. During its 2014 "Protective Edge" war on Gaza, Israel bombed and destroyed several hospitals.

If we set aside any malevolent intent, Israel denying the vaccine to Palestinians boils down to an economic dilemma of who should pay the nearly $300 million for vaccinating 4.7 million occupied Palestinians.

On one hand, there's no precedent to suggest Israel would consider paying, despite its responsibility under international law to maintain the wellbeing and health of the people it occupies and whose lives it controls.

In fact, Palestinians' health needs have been a very lucrative business for Israel's medical sector. Annually, Israel charges the PA $100 million (approximately 20 percent of the PA's health budget) for treating Palestinian patients, including those maimed or injured by Israel's army.

It cannot relinquish its basic responsibility for the well-being of the occupied populace by claiming that local authorities are in charge

But on the other hand, the PA's 2020 budget has a $1.4 billion deficit, it cannot afford that amount. The decline in the PA's 2020 revenues comes as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the decades-long systematic Israeli efforts to undermine the Palestinian economy. According to UNCTAD, the direct fiscal cost to Palestinians of Israel's occupation between 2000-2017 amounted to $48 billion, and it continues to rise. In Gaza, UNCTAD estimates that the blockade has cost its economy $16 billion.

International law, more specifically the fourth Geneva convention, states that if the local administration lacks the means to provide adequate healthcare, it's the occupying power's duty to take remedial action. It cannot relinquish its basic responsibility for the well-being of the occupied populace by claiming that local authorities are in charge. 

If the PA is in fact responsible, why has Israel been undermining the PA's health measures in Area C and East Jerusalem since the outbreak of the pandemic, where for instance, it destroyed PA Covid-19 testing centres? Israel justifies those measures by claiming it considers East Jerusalem an annexed territory and doesn't recognise the PA's authority over Area C.

For as long as Israel remains an occupying power, the Fourth Geneva Convention applies

This should imply Israel is responsible for their vaccination. However, while Israel is vaccinating East Jerusalemites, 180,000-300,000 Palestinians who live under Israel's military and civil authority in Area C haven't been included in the vaccination programme.

Second, if Oslo is the measure, then Israel should cease all unilateral actions, end raids in Area A and provide safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank as a single territorial unit, all issues that Israel has systematically "breached into virtual obsolescence" as American-Palestinian expert, Khaled Elgindy, pointed out.

Finally, Oslo - an interim agreement towards ending the occupation that Israel never respects - doesn't preclude or supersede international law. For as long as Israel remains an occupying power, the Fourth Geneva Convention applies, defining Israel's responsibility for the health and wellbeing of occupied Palestinians.

The Covid-19 pandemic has made clear how Israel refuses to take responsibility for Palestinians living under its control, while its occupation renders it impossible for Palestinians to sustain and take responsibility for themselves.

Muhammad Shehada is a writer and civil society activist from the Gaza Strip and a student of Development Studies at Lund University, Sweden. He was the PR officer for the Gaza office of the Euro-Med Monitor for Human Rights.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

Have questions or comments? Email us at editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.