Oliver Holmes & Hazam Balousha
The Observer / January 3, 2021
Human rights groups accuse Israel of dodging obligations to millions in occupied territories who may wait months for vaccination.
Israel is celebrating an impressive, record-setting vaccination drive, having given initial jabs of coronavirus shots to more than a 10th of the population. But Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza can only watch and wait.
As the world ramps up what is already on track to become a highly unequal vaccination push – with people in richer nations first to be inoculated – the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories provides a stark example of the divide.
Israel transports batches of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine deep inside the West Bank. But they are only distributed to Jewish settlers, and not the roughly 2.7 million Palestinians living around them who may have to wait for weeks or months.
“I don’t know how, but there must be a way to make us a priority, too?” said Mahmoud Kilani, a 31-year-old sports coach from the Palestinian city of Nablus. “Who cares about us? I don’t think anybody is stuck on that question.”
Two weeks into its vaccination campaign, Israel is administering more than 150,000 doses a day, amounting to initial jabs for more than 1 million of its 9 million citizens – a higher proportion of the population than anywhere else.
Vaccine centres have been set up in sports stadiums and central squares. People over 60, healthcare workers, carers and high-risk populations have priority, while young, healthier people who walk into clinics are sometimes rewarded with surplus stock to avoid the waste of unused vials.
The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has told Israelis that the country could be the first to emerge from the pandemic. As well as a highly advanced healthcare system, part of the reason for the speed could be economics. A health ministry official said the country had paid $62 a dose, compared with the $19.50 the US is paying.
Meanwhile, the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, which maintains limited self-rule in the territories, is rushing to get vaccines. One official suggested, perhaps optimistically, that shots could arrive within the next two weeks.
However, when asked for a timeframe, Ali Abed Rabbo, director-general of the Palestinian health ministry, estimated the first vaccines would probably arrive in February.
Those would be through a World Health Organization-led partnership called Covax, aimed at helping poorer countries, which has pledged to vaccinate 20% of Palestinians. Yet vaccines intended for Covax have not yet gained “emergency use” approval by the WHO, a precondition for distribution to begin.
Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of office at WHO Jerusalem, said it could be “early to mid-2021” before vaccines on the Covax scheme were available for distribution in the Palestinian territories.
The rest of the doses are expected to come through deals with pharmaceutical companies, but none have apparently been signed so far.
Despite the delay, the authority has not officially asked for help from Israel. Coordination between the two sides halted last year after the Palestinian president cut off security ties for several months.
But Rabbo said “sessions” with Israel had been held. “Until this moment, there is no agreement, and we cannot say there is anything practical on the ground in this regard,” he said.
Israeli officials have suggested they might provide surplus vaccines to Palestinians and claim they are not responsible for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, pointing to 1990s-era interim agreements that required the authority to observe international vaccination standards.
Those deals envisioned a fuller peace agreement within five years, an event that never occurred. Almost three decades later, Israeli, Palestinian and international rights groups have accused Israel of dodging moral, humanitarian and legal obligations as an occupying power during the pandemic.
Gisha, an Israeli rights group, said Palestinian efforts so far to look elsewhere for vaccines “does not absolve Israel from its ultimate responsibility toward Palestinians under occupation”.
The disparities could potentially see Israelis return to some form of normality within the first three months of this year, while Palestinians remain trapped by the virus. That may have a negative impact on Israel’s goal of herd immunity, as thousands of West Bank Palestinians work in Israel and the settlements, which could keep infection rates up.
In Gaza, an impoverished enclave under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade, the timeframe could be even longer than in the West Bank. The strip’s Islamist rulers, Hamas, have been unable to contain the virus and are enemies with Israel and political rivals with the Palestinian Authority.
Salama Ma’rouf, head of the Hamas-run Gaza press office, estimated vaccines would arrive “within two months”, adding that there was coordination with the WHO and the Palestinian Authority.
Heba Abu Asr, 35, a resident of Gaza, jolted when asked how she felt about others getting the vaccine first. “Are you seriously trying to compare us with Israel or any other country?” she asked. “We can’t find work, food, or drink. We are under threat all the time. We do not even have any necessities for life.”
Oliver Holmes is the Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian
Hazam Balousha in Gaza