Israel’s COVID-19 Response Continues to Ignore Palestinians
March 23 2022

At the beginning of 2022, the Israeli state became the first in the world to launch a fourth round of COVID-19 vaccines. While initially being offered only to the immuno-compromised, those aged over 60, and healthcare workers, the scheme may eventually be rolled out to all those who hold Israeli citizenship.

Much Western reporting of this story reflects a widespread narrative in the Global North that Israel has been “leading” in its epidemiological response to the pandemic. This discourse emphasizes that the Israeli government started its vaccination rollout earlier than most high-income countries, moving to its third-vaccination campaign in summer 2021. This campaign, however, has been limited to Israeli citizens, including settlers living illegally in the West Bank. Fixation on the speed of Israel’s rollout obscures the abandonment of around 5 million occupied Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Under international law, Israel is responsible for public health provision in the territories it occupies. According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, this includes providing “prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, alongside many Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations, have all called on the Israeli authorities to fulfil their legal obligations in providing vaccines to the Palestinian population. Yet successive Israeli governments – led by Benjamin Netanyahu until June 2021 and Naftali Bennett thereafter – have denied responsibility for vaccinating Palestinians, contending that the terms of the Oslo Accords place the obligation with the Palestinian Health Ministry. In fact, the United Nations has stated explicitly that international law supersedes Oslo and that Israel remains responsible.  

In an interview with the BBC in early 2021, then Israeli health minister Yuli Edelstein denied this. In a soundbite later shared widely on social media, he remarked that if Israel is responsible for vaccinating Palestinians, then the Palestinian health minister should “take care of the dolphins in the Mediterranean.” He argued that citizens of Israel should be prioritized as taxpayers – ignoring the day labor of many West Bank Palestinians, and overlooking complaints from Palestinian citizens of Israel, including Knesset member Ayman Odeh, that they have been neglected within the vaccine campaign.

Since Edelstein left the Health Ministry in June 2021, the Israeli government’s provision of vaccines for Palestinians has remained sporadic at best and non-existent at worst. Reports of a breakthrough vaccine-sharing deal proved premature when it emerged that the stock supplied to the Palestinian Authority was due to expire the same month it arrived. While the Palestinian vaccination campaign eventually got underway in the summer of 2021, it lagged significantly behind. By the end of the year – when 70% of Israeli citizens had been double-jabbed and 45% triple-jabbedless than half of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had received just their first dose; less than a third had received their second.

Israel’s denial of vaccine equality for Palestinians has exacerbated its medical apartheid. As a result, the pandemic has continued to rage in both the West Bank and Gaza, where the local healthcare systems were already seriously weakened by factors including long-term military occupation, structural impoverishment, limited mobility, and, in the case of Gaza, a blockade now in its 15th year, and a bombing campaign that destroyed Palestinian hospitals and killed Palestinian medics.

Unfortunately, the twin trends of epidemiological efficiency for Israeli citizens and abandonment of the Palestinians look set to continue with the state’s 4th round of vaccinations. With the omicron infection rate now surging in both the West Bank and Gaza, it is likely that Palestinians are set for more suffering from the pandemic in the coming weeks.

About The Author: 

Anne Irfan is a historian of the modern Middle East, specializing in Palestinian refugee history. She is Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Race, Gender and Postcolonial Studies at University College London. Her work can be found in the Journal of Refugee Studies, Journal of Palestine Studies, Forced Migration Review, and Jerusalem Quarterly. Her book, Refuge and Resistance: Palestinian refugees and the UN regime, 1948-82, will be released with Columbia University Press. 

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