Medical apartheid? The concerning disparity in vaccine provision between Israel and Palestine

Israel leads the way in the plight to eradicate COVID-19, having vaccinated a larger proportion of its population than any other nation. Yet it has denied the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip COVID-19 vaccinations whilst offering the vaccine to everyone else in these territories. This is clear discrimination and Israel should be held accountable for it.

The question of whether the Palestinian population should be given the vaccine can be reduced (in very simple terms) to three key disputes:

  1. Disagreements over the terms and precedence of the Oslo Accords and Fourth Geneva Convention.
  2. Is Israel an occupying power of the West Bank and Gaza Strip?
  3. Did Palestine ask Israel for aid?

Israel has used the Oslo Accords to justify its refusal to provide the vaccine to the populations in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The Oslo Accords were signed in the 1990s and entail that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for healthcare in all of its territories. This suggests, therefore, that Palestine should be looking after their own citizens and providing vaccines themselves. However, the Accords do specifically state that both sides should work together to combat epidemics. Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Health Minister, publicly gave his interpretation of this, claiming that Israel and Palestine should share data about coronavirus, but nothing more. He further argued that providing the vaccine may be in Israel’s interests but it is not their obligation.

However, the United Nations (UN) have cited the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that the occupying power (Israel) must ‘import the necessary medical supplies, including medicaments, vaccines, and sera, when the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.’ Consequently, The UN states that Israel has a ‘moral and legal obligation’ to vaccinate and that international law takes precedence over the Oslo Accords. Israel’s employment of the Oslo Accords should be disregarded.

Israel stated that if they have any excess supply of vaccines after vaccinating their own population, they will give them to the Palestinian Authorities. However, this is clearly an attempt to divert international attention away from Israel – it is likely that a long time will have passed before the Israeli government has vaccinated all of their population and can afford to ‘give them away.’ Recently, there have been reports of many ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel refusing to abide by coronavirus restrictions, let alone agreeing to have the vaccination, so it may be a while until the whole population has been vaccinated. 

Furthermore, Israel argues that it is not technically an occupying power of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, so has no responsibility to vaccinate the Palestinian population. Yet Israel’s status as an occupying power is confirmed by the International Court of Justice and the Israeli Supreme Court. Although this is disputed by the Israeli government, Israel has indeed acted as an occupying power. Last year, for example, Israel threatened to annex the West Bank, therefore showing its intentions for sovereignty. It is too convenient, then, for Israel to deny occupation over the West Bank when justifying their vaccine discrimination.

The following scenario clearly illustrates Israel’s blatant discrimination. Imagine a construction site where three-quarters of the builders are vaccinated and a quarter are not. The decision to vaccinate or not is based on whether the builder is Palestinian. Both groups use the same space, both groups have the same job, both have similar skills – so they should both have the same opportunities. Yet the Palestinians are dismissed. This is clear discrimination, even a medical apartheid. 

As well as the clear injustice, it is also in Israel’s interests to vaccinate. Around 130,000 Palestinians travel cross the border into Israel for work. Clearly, if they are not vaccinated, they will put the unvaccinated Israeli population at risk. It would be more logical to vaccinate everyone in a single workplace, regardless of where they live. So, the next logical step is that the Palestinians who cross the border for work should be vaccinated and considered in the same way as the Israeli population.

But if we follow this argument through, what about the Palestinians who don’t work in Israel – the retired or the disabled, for example? If the fit, healthy people who can travel to work in Israel are vaccinated, the people who are most in need of the vaccine remain extremely vulnerable. From an ethical perspective, Israel should vaccinate the whole population across its territories.

Palestine has also made claims that it will receive the Russian vaccine in the next month. But this is one of many conflicting statements made by the Palestine Authorities. And none of their claims have reached fruition – Palestine’s resources, as stated by the Fourth Geneva Convention, are ‘inadequate’, and this is reflected in their lack of access to vaccines. Israel, by contrast, has the advantage of a stronger economy, and is being called upon to use this power to distribute vaccines fairly.

Israel is also claiming that the Palestinian Authorities have not requested vaccinations. However, the Fourth Geneva Convention and Israel’s status as an occupying power clearly outline Israel’s responsibilities, which should be followed through regardless of Palestine’s failure to ask for help. Yet again, Israel’s attempts at justification are poor.

Vaccinations should move beyond territory laws, and look at the humans in the territory. Israel should vaccinate the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip at the same rate as the Israeli population. From a pragmatic perspective, it is also in Israel’s interests to do so. Israel conducts a military occupation over these territories, so it should treat the populations equally. We are seeing medical apartheid here and it must be stopped.


Image: Diana Polekhina via Unsplash

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