Covering Up Israeli Medical Apartheid
March 31, 2021

Editor's Note: This article is part of the Press on Palestine series, an initiative by Palestine Square. It covers the month of February 2021. Press on Palestine highlights bias in mainstream American reporting on Palestinian affairs and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel has continued to extend its apartheid system into the health care sector. After initially claiming no responsibility to vaccinate Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza—in direct contradiction with Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention—the Israeli government began actively blocking Palestinian vaccine access, delaying a shipment of 2,000 Russian vaccines headed for Gaza on February 15. Shortly after, Israel began shipping off its surplus vaccines to countries such as Syria (as part of a prisoner exchange), as well as Honduras and Guatemala (in recognition of those countries expressing support for its apartheid policies) rather than vaccinating the roughly five million Palestinians living under its military rule.

After finally caving to international pressure at the end of February, the Israeli government announced that it would vaccinate just 110,000 Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza,  and only those who hold work permits. The implication of this policy is clear: in the view of the Israeli state, vaccination priority for Israeli Jews is based on susceptibility to the virus, i.e. front-line health care workers and the elderly. But when it comes to vaccinating Palestinians, priority is given to those most likely to come in to contact with Israelis, even if this group has  a much lower risk of infection. For the vast majority of West Bank and Gaza residents, the vaccine is unattainable.

Despite this blatant medical apartheid, the inherently racist character of the Israeli state has continued to draw much praise from major media outlets, with many only focusing on the speed at which Israel has vaccinated Jewish Israelis. The discrimination against Palestinians has mostly earned token references.


    1. New York Times -  Feb. 4, 2021
Israel’s Vaccine Success Unleashes a Debate on Palestinian Inequities
by Adam Rasgon

According to New York Times reporter Adam Rasgon, Israel’s coronavirus vaccination program has “laid bare a fiery debate” over the state’s responsibility to vaccinate Palestinians living under Israeli military control. Rasgon’s article begins painting a picture of a “roiling” debate, implying that this discussion is one that is pitting legal experts, scientists, and humanitarian advocates against one other. But as the article eventually admits, the “debate” over whether or not Israel should vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in reality features on one side Israeli officials and supporters, and everyone else on the other.

As Rasgon acknowledges, the Fourth Geneva Convention declares that “occupying powers hold a duty to ensure the public health of people living under occupation to ‘the fullest extent’ possible, especially with regard to combating epidemics and diseases.” Israeli officials have countered this by pointing to the Oslo Accords, which states that the Palestinian Authority must take on healthcare responsibilities in the West Bank and Gaza. This is done simply to escape responsibility for a vaccination campaign. In the 26 years since the second Oslo Accord, Israel has violated the agreement countless times, while curbing the power of Palestinians to procure what they need. Referencing Oslo is disingenuous.

Rasgon grudgingly recognizes the emptiness of this argument as well. He notes that the Oslo Accords “also mentioned that Israel and the Palestinians should cooperate in fighting epidemics and contagious diseases.” So where is the debate?

In reality, there is no debate – and the content of this New York Times article makes this reality clear, even if its author wants to dress up his reporting for the paper’s liberal Zionist audience with rhetoric implying that both sides have a reasonable case to make.


    2. Washington Post - February 23, 2021
SNL’s Michael Che said Israel only vaccinated its ‘Jewish half.’ Critics call the joke ‘an antisemitic trope
by Timothy Bella

Much of the Israel-Palestine discourse as of late has been focused on a rather tepid joke about the vaccination issue made by comedian Michel Che.

Che, co-host of Saturday Night Live’s long-running “Weekend Update” segment, delivered this one-liner on the February 20 episode: “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population… and I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half!”

Pro-Israel voices quickly erupted in outrage, with many claiming the joke played into anti-Semitic tropes.

After generating much discussion online, the controversy made its way to the pages of The Washington Post. Although Post reporter Timothy Bella attempted to strike a neutral tone in his report, the evidence presented made it clear where the paper stood. Bella provided quotes from the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, the Israeli Health Minister, as well as a petition from the American Jewish Committee that all either criticized Che for his joke, accused him of anti-Semitism, or both. But as for those showing support for Che, Bella cited only a Jerusalem Post op-ed and podcast host Katie Halper (whose name was not mentioned in the article).

What is most disappointing about this false controversy is that there actually is a story to be told, and it has nothing to do with the usual suspects calling everything mildly critical of Israel anti-Semitic. What was most telling about the response from much of the pro-Israel commentariat was their insistence that Che was wrong because Israel is vaccinating all of its citizens, including Palestinians with Israeli citizenship. Firstly, this is untrue: many Palestinians living in the interior have been denied vaccinations. Secondly, Che used the word population in his joke, not citizens, which shows that even pro-Israel figures are unable to defend the state’s vaccination policy without distorting the argument against it. This response underlines the fact that Israel supporters see no problem with the state denying citizenship to millions of people whose entire lives are controlled by Israel.


    3. Wall Street Journal - Feb. 1, 2021
Israel Sends 2,000 Doses of a Covid-19 Vaccine to Palestinians
 by Dov Lieber

Credit must be given to The Wall Street Journal this month for accurately summarizing the reasoning behind Israel’s distribution of a limited number of vaccines to West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. Journal reporter Dov Lieber opened his February 1 article with the following lede: “Israel transferred the first batch of a Covid-19 vaccine to the Palestinians amid growing concerns over the disease’s spread in the neighboring West Bank and Gaza becoming a threat to the country.”

This is Israel’s vaccine policy in a nutshell—Palestinians should be vaccinated only if they risk spreading the virus to Israeli Jews. There is no humanitarian concern, no assumption of responsibility as an occupier, and no “debate.” In an apartheid society, members of the preferred racial group receive basic human rights, whereas members of the undesirable racial group receive rights only when it is beneficial for the preferred racial group.

About The Author: 

Eli Powelson is an American historian based in Beirut and Los Angeles. He holds a BA in History from San Francisco State University, an MA in Arab and Middle Eastern History from the American University of Beirut, and will soon begin a PhD program in Middle East History. His research has focused on Palestine in the early British Mandate era with a special concentration on media analysis.

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