Israel uses vaccines as bargaining chips

Maureen Clare Murphy

The Electronic Intifada  /  February 16, 2021

Earlier this month, Tor Wennesland, the UN secretary-general’s new Middle East peace envoy, tweeted his appreciation to the Israeli government for facilitating “the Palestinian COVID-19 response effort, including vaccines delivery.”

Wennesland added: “The pandemic knows no borders – only collectively we can achieve results.”

His praise for Israel, however, was without merit and premature.

On Monday, the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank said that Israel was preventing the transfer of 2,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to frontline medical workers in the Gaza Strip.

Under a severely tightened Israeli blockade since 2007, the Gaza Strip is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. The two million Palestinians living there have not yet received any vaccines.

An Israeli official told the AP news agency that the transfer of vaccines to Gaza, where more than 530 people have died from COVID-19, was under review.

Some Israeli lawmakers have called for the transfer of vaccines to be conditioned on concessions from Hamas authorities in Gaza.

Israeli officials have repeatedly sought to condition basic humanitarian needs in Gaza – like fuel for electricity generation – on forcing concessions from Hamas.

Michal Cotler-Wunsh, a member of Israel’s parliament, grotesquely characterized conditioning the transfer of vaccines as “a new paradigm based on reciprocity.”

Yet there is nothing reciprocal in a relationship between an occupier and the population it occupies. There is no reciprocity between a colonizer and the people subjected to its coercive rule.

Collective punishment

As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for “public health and hygiene in the occupied territory,” as stated in article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

That article also makes “particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”

Not only has Israel refused to abide by its obligations, but it is also now undercutting the Palestinian Authority’s efforts to get the vaccine to medical workers in Gaza.

Putting a civilian population under pressure to extract demands like some Israeli lawmakers are intent on doing – a policy that underpins the siege on Gaza as a whole – is an act of collective punishment.

Collective punishment is a violation of article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention – a war crime.

Israel meanwhile withholds the remains of Palestinians killed during what it claims were attacks, intending to use them as bargaining chips in negotiations.

That too is a violation of international law championed by top officials and approved by Israel’s highest court.

Instead of praising non-existent collective action to stymie the spread of COVID-19, UN envoy Wennesland should be condemning Israel for harming Palestinian public health efforts.

The failure of the UN’s political wing to hold Israel to account – and it has actually undermined accountability efforts from other bodies in the global organization – only allows these abuses to proliferate.

Wennesland appears intent to carry on the work of his predecessor Nickolay Mladenov, who treated Palestinian rights as subject to negotiation while demanding nothing from Israel.

Mladenov welcomed – if not advocated for – normalization agreements between Israel and authoritarian Arab states as advancements of regional peace, though they do nothing to secure Palestinian rights.

Israel controls Gaza

The delay of the transfer of vaccines to Gaza is yet another reminder that the coastal enclave remains under occupation and complete Israeli control.

Israeli claims that the request to transfer vaccines was “still being examined” will be familiar to medical patients in Gaza whose access to lifesaving treatment is delayed – sometimes indefinitely – under the same pretext.

Palestinian human rights groups have long decried Israel’s “apartheid regime of systematic racial domination and oppression over all Palestinians.”

Over decades this regime “has led to the fragmentation and de-development of the healthcare system of the occupied Palestinian territory,” particularly in Gaza.

They warn – as have others – that Israel’s siege has “pushed Gaza’s healthcare system to the brink of collapse.”

By applauding Israel in the context of Palestinian COVID-19 efforts, Wennesland seems to be in wilful denial.

To be fair, wilful denial may be part of his job description, which requires him to continue to advocate for a two-state solution under the Oslo negotiations framework.

That framework was designed nearly three decades ago to fail to secure Palestinian rights.

Like his predecessor, Wennesland has so far remained conspicuously silent as the International Criminal Court inches towards opening war crimes investigations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

That court’s prosecutor likely has the names of Israeli leaders who author policies of collective punishment and the high-ranking officials responsible for other war crimes.

Let’s hope that the ICC – a court of last resort – won’t look the other way.

Maureen Clare Murphy is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago