Israel is currently being hailed as one of the most successful countries in regards to its efficiency and speed in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine. In roughly two weeks, Israel was able to provide the vaccine to roughly 15% of its population of 9.3 million people. Despite the Israeli government’s rapid response and commendable organization, a massive and frankly disturbing issue remains with their vaccination plan: the more than 5 million Palestinian inhabitants of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) have been entirely neglected. The OPT, which includes the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights, are technically under the occupation of the Israeli government and have been since the area was taken over after the Israeli victory in the 1967 June War. Because of this and Israel’s status as an occupying power, the responsibility to provide the vaccine should fall onto Israel, however, the government has opted to entirely ignore the needs of the Palestinians. The Israeli government even rejected a request from the World Health Organization to provide vaccines to Palestinian health workers. Ultimately, the provision of vaccines has fallen on the Palestinian authorities; however, they have limited funds and resources, and have ultimately been unable to deliver the vaccine to most Palestinians. This decision to not provide inhabitants of the OPT with the vaccine has truly revealed how the Israeli government has no issue with blatantly disregarding Palestinian lives.
The effects of COVID-19 in the OPT
Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, healthcare services in the OPT were strained and widely insufficient. One of the major issues facing Palestinians in need of healthcare has been the problem of mobility: under Israeli occupation, roadblocks and restrictions are set up in most areas, making it extremely difficult for Palestinians to access certain parts of the territories. The Israeli government puts little to no resources into infrastructure in the territories: most notably, roads are underdeveloped and their maintenance is neglected, meaning that ambulances or private citizens in need of medical assistance struggle to quickly access hospitals or clinics. In terms of basic necessities, Palestinians have been denied access to their own land, inhibiting their ability to acquire necessary food, and similarly, 96% of the water in the Gaza Strip has been deemed unfit for drinking. Access to basic resources is further disrupted in light of all the physical restrictions and roadblocks as they make it even more difficult for humanitarian aid organizations to deliver such resources.
All of these issues facing the Palestinian people have been exacerbated as a result of the pandemic. According to the World Health Organization as of January 3rd, 159,034 Palestinians in the OPT have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, of which 1,600 people have died. Within the OPT, there were 81 hospitals and a total of 583 clinics as of 2019, which reveals how greatly unequipped the territory is to handle the pandemic. Similarly, because of the aforementioned issues with infrastructure, many Palestinians in need of vital resources like ventilators cannot even access these hospitals. For those Palestinians who are lucky enough to be at all in the proximity of these clinics or hospitals, another issue arises: many people have to wait for hours at checkpoints in close proximity to each other, making the risk of contracting the virus increase.
How has the Israeli government deflected responsibility?
The Israeli government has cited the Oslo Accords as a reason for not supplying the Palestinian territories with the vaccine. Signed in 1993 by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) representative Mahmoud Abbas, the Oslo Accords required Israel to accept the PLO’s authority over the Palestinian people. In return, the PLO was obliged to denounce terrorism and recognize Israel’s right to exist. Most importantly, under the Accords, authority over healthcare was technically delegated to the Palestinian authorities. However, the Oslo Accords have been widely understood as a failure, seeing as, in the aftermath of the agreement, relations between the two governing authorities broke down almost immediately for a variety of reasons. In the years since this failed agreement, Israel has not acted in accordance with the stipulations of the Accords, therefore it is unreasonable to hold the Palestinian authorities to Oslo’s standards. Whatsmore, as an occupying power, Israel does technically have an obligation to provide the vaccine under international and humanitarian norms. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, an occupying power is required to “ensure sufficient hygiene and public health standards, as well as the provision of food and medical care to the population under occupation.”
With Israel not taking responsibility for the provision of the vaccine, the Palestinian Authority (PA), the governing body established with the approval of the PLO and the Israeli government under the Oslo Accords, has now been delegated this task. Unable to obtain the more readily available COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna because of a lack of finances, the PA has had to turn to different avenues. The PA announced the possibility of being able to access the Russian made Sputnik-V vaccine and similarly alluded to the potential of receiving the vaccine through the WHO-led COVAX program that aims to supply poorer countries with the vaccine. Unfortunately, both of these possibilities are not promising: Russia has said that it only has enough doses of the vaccine to fulfill domestic demand, and the vaccines available through the COVAX program are unfortunately still not ready for distribution.
What can be done
It is truly disturbing to see how indifferent the Israeli government has been when it comes to the suffering of the Palestinian people in light of COVID-19. This is no longer an issue of politics: no matter one’s feelings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is wrong to deny anyone the right to life. If Israel wants to be seen as a “legitimate” occupying power (which in itself is an oxymoron), it must take measures to supply the inhabitants of the OPT with the vaccine. The international community should also reprimand the Israeli government for not doing so. Unfortunately, Israel’s most influential ally, the United States, will most likely be no help: the US itself has failed miserably when dealing with COVID-19 on a national scale, and it similarly is too enamored with Israel to challenge them. As the US is an unlikely candidate to lead the charge against Israel, other prominent allies, like Canada, who claim to champion human rights, must step up in condemning Israel’s indifference. Similarly, individual citizens of the global community must speak up and not let this clear infringement on the Palestinians right to life go unnoticed.