Israel’s ‘Vaccine Apartheid’

Amongst the tragedies resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic is the manner in which the disease has exacerbated the already deteriorating living conditions for Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank region. These territories have been under Israeli occupation since 1967, and Gaza has been subject to an ongoing blockade by Israel and Egypt since 2007. Although Israel has been at the forefront of the global vaccination race, it has so far failed to vaccinate Palestinians in these territories, leading to allegations that it is committing a ‘vaccine apartheid’, as well as criticism from human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

Israel’s vaccination programme has been one of the most successful worldwide, with around a third of its 9 million population having received the vaccine, including Israeli settlers in the West Bank. By contrast, Israel has failed to vaccinate the almost 5 million Palestinians living under Israeli control in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Israeli authorities have argued that “Palestinians are responsible for their own healthcare, under the 1990s Oslo Peace Accords”. Yet, under the Fourth Geneva Condition, which the UN states takes priority over the Accords, it is Israel’s responsibility to provide medical aid as the occupying power. It is also important to note that the Oslo Accords were part of a larger peace attempt process aimed at providing Palestinians with their right to self-determination, and with the goal of a peace agreement being signed within 5 years. It is almost 30 years later, and a peace agreement is still not within sight. Therefore, this argument is insufficient for the Israeli government to deny their responsibility to provide medical care.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 159,034 Palestinians in occupied territories have tested positive for Covid-19 as of January 3rd. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been almost 1,500 deaths amongst Palestinians. The WHO further states that the fatality rate is 1.1% in the Occupied Territories, whereas it is 0.7% in Israel.

Amid international pressure and backlash, Israel has recently approved the transfer of 5,000 doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to Palestinian front-line medical workers. However, no further details of the transfer have been provided by the Israeli government, and 5,000 doses are not adequate for the protection of Palestinians from the virus. It pales in comparison to the millions of doses provided for Israeli citizens.

The advanced rollout of Israel’s vaccination programme demonstrates that they have the means to vaccinate Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank. Therefore, the state’s refusal to do so is another act of violence and discrimination which can be added to the list of horrors perpetrated against the Palestinian people. Following the creation of the State of Israel, the UN estimate that over 700,000 Palestinians were expelled or forced to flee. Over 70 years later there are 5.2 million registered Palestinian refugees, as reported by Amnesty International, whose right to return to their homes under international law is ignored. Of these, over a million languish in refugee camps for the Palestinians who remain, they are subject to bombardment, arbitrary detention, and several other human rights violations. All whilst Israel continues to expand its settlements in the West Bank, contrary to international law.

For those living in Gaza and the West Bank, there are two systems based on whether you are Israeli or Palestinian. Whilst Israeli settlers are governed by Israeli civilian law, and afforded citizenship and the full support of the state, Palestinians are bound by Israeli military law and deprived of their civil rights. Living under such law means that Palestinians are subject to statutes such as Military Order 101, which punishes even peaceful protests. Those who breach the order face imprisonment of up to 10 years. Discrimination towards Palestinians is embedded in the Israeli government’s policy, and the unequal distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine is another example of this.

How can one reconcile the fact that Palestinians living in occupied territories are denied the vaccine, whilst their neighbours in Israeli settlements are not?

When healthcare policy is guided by institutionalised discrimination, tragedy inevitably ensues and lives are needlessly lost. Palestine’s healthcare system is in ruins after years of occupation and over a decade-long blockade of the Gaza strip. There are severe shortages of medicine and medical equipment, as well as acute poverty. Israeli authorities also make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for Palestinians to get permits to access better-equipped hospitals. The Covid-19 pandemic has only heightened the problem and highlights the effect Israel’s ongoing blockade has on the healthcare of Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has stated they should be able to vaccinate around 20% of the population with doses provided by the Covax Scheme. This is a WHO backed programme aimed at ensuring that vaccines are distributed fairly among countries, and it will distribute most of its doses in low and middle-income countries. The programme was motivated by the findings of the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, which show that high-income countries currently hold 4.2 billion doses, whilst low and middle-income countries only hold 670 million. On top of that, the PA has signed deals with four vaccine companies to acquire more doses for the rest of the population. However, due to the ongoing blockade, there are also the logistical challenges to distributing the vaccine in Gaza which must be considered. 

After over 50 years of occupation, peace appears to remain a distant goal. The equal distribution of the vaccine amongst those in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank is crucial to saving lives and is also a necessity to protect the prospect of peace. Israel’s refusal to provide vaccines for these territories is a blatant neglect of its responsibilities. 

The world cannot laud Israel for its vaccination programme whilst it fails to fulfil its obligations under international law.

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