Covid-19: Why Oslo doesn’t absolve Israel of duty to vaccinate Palestinians

A health worker prepares a dose of coronavirus vaccine (AFP)

Ali Harb

Middle East Eye  /  January 29, 2021

International law says occupying power is responsible for health of Palestinians living under its control, but Israel refuses to inoculate Palestinians.

In the global fight against the coronavirus, Israel has led the way with the highest number of vaccines administered per capita. But its vaccine rollout has been tainted by the Israeli government’s refusal to inoculate Palestinians living under its control.

Israel and its supporters maintain that immunising Palestinians is the duty of the Palestinian Authority. Critics argue that Israel – as the occupying power in the Palestinian territories – has a legal and moral obligation to provide the vaccines. 

The debate cuts to the core of the political and legal questions that surround the conflict: Who governs the Palestinians? Can the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority fulfil the role of a state under the occupation? Do the Oslo Accords absolve Israel of its responsibilities to Palestinians as the occupying power?

“Israel-Palestine, we are interrelated; we are one entity. To say there are two states is silly; there’s only one state between the river and the sea. And that is the state of Israel. It controls everything, and it treats Arabs and Jews differently,” said Jonathan Kuttab, a Palestinian-American attorney specialising in international law.

Kuttab said Israel’s obligation to vaccinate Palestinians is clear under international law. “The matter is not open to interpretation.”

Not only does the Geneva Convention dictate that the occupying power is responsible for the health and well-being of the occupied, the treaty – which is the bedrock of international law – specifically spells out an obligation to prevent the spread of pandemics.

“To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the occupying power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the co-operation of national and local authorities, the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory,” the convention says, “with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”

Oslo Accords

Although international law is unambiguous in detailing Israel is obligated to vaccinate Palestinians, Israel’s advocates argue that the Oslo Accords, which govern Palestinian-Israeli relations, assign health care responsibility to the Palestinian Authority.

The pact says that “powers and responsibilities in the sphere of health in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” are to be transferred to the “Palestinian side”.

One issue with that interpretation, however, is that hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers in the West Bank already have access to the vaccine while Palestinians living under occupation in neighbouring villages do not.

Moreover, Kuttab details three major flaws in using the Oslo Accords as a justification for Israel’s vaccination policies:

  • International law trumps Oslo, and Israel’s obligations as the occupying power cannot be signed away by the Palestinian Authority
  • Israel is in constant violation of the Oslo Accords
  • The infrastructure needed to import, distribute and administer the vaccine in the Palestinian territory is under stringent Israeli control

Signed in 1993 and 1995, the Oslo Accords were meant to be an interim agreement to kick off the peace process and establish limited self-rule for Palestinians with the aim of the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

Twenty-eight years later, not only is a viable Palestinian state a distant dream, but Israel has tightened its military control over the occupied territories.

“For Israel, Oslo is like an alibi,” Kuttab said. “To some degree, the Palestinian Authority allows them to do that because it is desperate to pretend it is a state; it’s not a state. The PA wants to pretend that they have authority; they don’t have authority. They only have authority to the extent that allows them to have it.”

The international law expert said bilateral agreements cannot squander away the rights of occupied people under the Geneva Convention, especially that Palestinians are in a position of weakness. 

“It’s meaningless. Israel is still the occupying power, and it’s still responsible,” Kuttab told MEE. “It’s like you can’t just say this labourer agreed to accept less than minimum wage and agreed to have his children work despite the laws against child labour. It’s illegal.”

And while Israel and its advocates often cite Oslo when it comes to depriving Palestinians of the vaccine, demolishing Palestinian homes and the full subjugation of Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank, the Israeli government is in daily violation of the accords.

For example, the agreement grants Palestinians the right of transportation between Gaza and the West Bank, but travel between the two Palestinian territories is virtually impossible today. Israel regularly raids homes and arrests people in Area A of the West Bank, where Palestinians should have total security and civil control.

The Israeli siege on Gaza also severely restricts the 20 nautical miles granted to Palestinians for fishing by Oslo.

Kuttab said Israel uses Oslo to escape its responsibilities as an occupying power without living up to its own commitments in the accords.

“Equally important is that in order to take care of the health needs of your people, you need to have international agreements with the World Health Organization; you need to have access to orders through which they can import and export; you need to be able to build facilities and all these things that Palestinians can’t do,” Kuttab said.

In fact, Israeli forces razed a structure near Hebron in July that Palestinians say was meant to be a coronavirus testing centre.

In Gaza, which is facing a dire financial crisis under a suffocating Israeli-Egyptian blockade, Israel controls everything that goes into the territory.

Discriminatory systems

Kuttab said Israel is risking its own citizens by refusing to vaccinate Palestinians. “If you allow half the population under your control – millions and millions of people – to go around unvaccinated, it’s going to affect you, sooner or later.”

Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian rights, echoed Kuttab’s comment, saying that all Palestinians know is that “Israel controls every facet of our lives”.

“The Palestinians don’t control their airspace or land borders or sea space,” Abuznaid told MEE. “We use the Israeli shekel. There are Israeli checkpoints littered out through our land; there are Israeli-only roads all littered out through our land; there is an apartheid wall all littered out through our land. 

“And so it’s very frustrating for any Israeli official to go back to what Oslo and the PA should be doing or shouldn’t be doing or is responsible for doing.”

Abuznaid said at a time when there is a global call for uniting against the virus, discriminatory systems, including in Israel, have continued to operate and have been applied to the response to the pandemic.

“The virus does not see race; it does not see religion; it does not see creed,” Abuznaid said. “But Israeli apartheid does.”

Congress members react

Unconvinced by the Oslo argument, the United Nations has called on Israel to ensure “swift and equitable” vaccine access for Palestinians, noting the Israeli government’s success in inoculating its own citizens.

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

One US legislator, however, appears to have retracted his statement urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to vaccinate Palestinians after a backlash from Israel advocates who stressed that the responsibility falls on the Palestinian authority.

“Netanyahu must ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians have access to the Covid vaccine. This cruelty is another reminder of why the occupation must end,” newly elected Democratic Congressman Jamaal Bowman wrote on Twitter on Sunday.

That tweet is now gone. It has been deleted without explanation, and Bowman’s office did not return MEE’s request for comment.

Abuznaid said he was “disappointed” that the tweet was deleted, but said he would withhold further judgement until Bowman explains why the post was removed. He called on the congressman to engage with Palestinian activists and experts on the conflict.

Other members of Congress, including Rashida Tlaib, Marie Newman and Jaoquin Castro, have also denounced Israel for keeping Palestinians out of its vaccination efforts.

“I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by their government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making Covid vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” Castro told Haaretz on Sunday.

The congressman is a rising Democrat who unsuccessfully sought the leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee early this year.

For her part, Tlaib – who is Palestinian American – said Israel’s vaccination policies prove that it is an apartheid state, noting that the Israeli government has the power to inoculate Palestinians who live in close proximity to Israeli citizens.

“If anything, it just reiterates what the Palestinian people and even human rights groups have been telling us, is that this is an apartheid state,” Tlaib said.

Democratic Senator Tim Kaine also raised concerns about the discrepancy in vaccine distribution in Israel and the Palestinian territories while making a case for the two-state solution at the confirmation hearing of Secretary of State Tony Blinken last week. 

“The Palestinians are in this odd space where they’re sort of not in one of their own countries or in a country, but they’re not considered citizens, they’re considered neighbours,” Kaine said. “This is the kind of thing that suggests we really do need to find a path forward.”

Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics