Israel’s vaccine rollout excludes Palestinians

A representative of a prisoners' rights group in Gaza carries a note protesting Israel's decision not to vaccinate so-called security prisoners (Mahmoud Ajjour - APA Images)

Omar Karmi

The Electronic Intifada  /  December 29, 2020

Israel is rolling out its COVID-19 vaccine campaign in haste. On Christmas Day, the country had the second most prolific program in the world.

But the rollout is selective. While Israel has secured 8 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, for which its two million-strong Palestinian citizens are eligible, no provision has been made for the roughly 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza who live under its military occupation.

Israel’s public security minister Amir Ohana, meanwhile, has directed the health ministry not to include so-called security prisoners – all of whom are Palestinian – to be included in the second priority group of inoculations.

This contradicts health ministry directives, which have deemed prisoners generally as at high risk of exposure. Security prisoners’ guards will still be vaccinated as part of the second phase of Israel’s rollout.

If you prick me

Discriminatory policies towards the thousands of Palestinians in Israel’s detention centers are replicated on a bigger scale outside the prison walls.

As the occupying power, Israel has a responsibility under international law, including article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to ensure “public health and hygiene in the occupied territory.”

Article 56 makes “particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”

Israel is also reneging on its signed agreements and promises, specifically Article 17 of its 1995 interim agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization.

That too calls explicitly for Israel to help the Palestinian Authority combat “epidemics and contagious diseases … [and] … develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents.”

The PA has yet to decide which vaccines to deploy – there is talk of taking delivery of the Russian Sputnik vaccine. The PA said it has limited resources for a major rollout and will rely on international aid and donors.

Yet in occupied territory, Israel is making a distinction based purely on citizenship and religion. Israeli citizens and/or Jewish settlers in its illegal colonies are eligible for the vaccine; non-Israelis, including Palestinian Muslims and Christians, are not.

Counterintuitive

Such discriminatory policies have barely been noticed abroad, even in Europe, where it was reported that Germany would allow Israel, a non-EU country, to have special access to its Pfizer vaccine.

Questions were raised in the European parliament about what, if any, provision were made to include Palestinians in that delivery.

The planned vaccine vaccine rollout has incurred the rancor of human rights organizations, both Palestinian and Israeli. Al Mezan, a group based in Gaza, urged Israel to “live up to [its] legal obligations” and not exclude Palestinians from the vaccine program.

Physicians for Human Rights Israel also demanded that Israel deliver vaccines to the West Bank and Gaza.

Gaza’s healthcare system is particularly vulnerable, undermined by a nearly 14-year Israeli blockade that has left it struggling for essential medicines, let alone cutting-edge COVID-19 vaccines.

As of 29 December, there were nearly as many active COVID-19 cases among Gaza’s population of roughly 2 million as the West Bank’s 3 million Palestinians.

Israel’s policy of excluding the Palestinians of the occupied territory would seem not just illegal and immoral, but counterintuitive. Vaccine efficacy in a given population is directly related to the level of coverage.

Offering vaccines to just two-thirds of the people under its control is not likely to be an effective means to combat the spread of COVID-19.

If only there was a vaccine for bigotry.

Omar Karmi is an independent journalist and former Jerusalem and Washington, DC, correspondent for The National newspaper