By Ramzy Baroud
Israel’s decision to exclude Palestinians from its coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination campaign may have surprised many. Even by Israel’s poor humanitarian standards, denying the Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip access to lifesaving medication seems extremely callous.
Amnesty International was among the many organizations to condemn the Israeli government’s failure to include Palestinians in its vaccine rollout. The rights group described this as evidence of the “institutionalized discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy toward Palestinians.”
The Palestinian Authority (PA) was not expecting Israel to supply Palestinian hospitals with millions of vaccines, as it hopes to receive 2 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine in February. Instead, the request made by Hussein Al-Sheikh, the PA’s coordinator of Palestinian affairs with Israel, was a meager 10,000 doses to help protect front-line Palestinian workers. Still, the Israeli Health Ministry rejected the request.
According to the Palestinian news agency WAFA, 1,629 Palestinians had died and 160,043 had been infected with COVID-19 as of Jan. 4. While such dismal numbers can also be found in many other parts of the world, the Palestinian coronavirus crisis is compounded by the fact that Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation, a state of apartheid and, in the case of Gaza, an unrelenting siege.
Worse still, Palestinian initiatives to provide free COVID-19 testing in the Occupied Territories have been hampered by the Israeli military. According to the Palestinian rights group Al-Haq, materials that were to be used for two field clinics were confiscated in the Palestinian town of Khirbet Ibziq in the Jordan Valley in March last year. This pattern was repeated in East Jerusalem, Hebron and elsewhere in the following months.
There is no legal or moral justification for Israel’s actions. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 asserts that an occupying power has the “duty of ensuring and maintaining… the medical and hospital establishments and services,” with “particular reference” on taking the “preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
Even the Oslo Accords, despite their failure to address many crucial topics pertaining to the freedom of the Palestinian people, oblige both sides “to cooperate in combating epidemics and to assist each other in times of emergency,” the New York Times reported.
Not all Israelis deny that Israel is legally compelled to provide Palestinians with the help required to contain the rapid spread of the pandemic. This admission, however, comes with conditions. Former Israeli Ambassador to Canada Alan Baker told the New York Times that, while international law does “place an obligation on Israel” to help in the provision of vaccines to Palestinians, the Palestinians must first release several Israeli soldiers who were captured in Gaza during and after the 2014 war.
The irony in Baker’s logic is that Israel holds more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners, including women and children, hundreds of whom are imprisoned without trial or due process. The captured Israelis are held in Gaza as a bargaining chip, to be exchanged for the easing of Israel’s hermetic blockade on the densely populated Strip. One of the Palestinians’ main demands for the release of the soldiers is that Israel allows the transfer of medical equipment and lifesaving medication to the 2 million people of the Gaza Strip.
International and Palestinian human rights groups have long reported on many unnecessary deaths among Palestinians in Gaza because Israel deliberately prevents Gazan hospitals from acquiring cancer medications. Israel weaponized medicine long before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and Gaza’s dilapidated health sector is testament to this injustice.
Meanwhile, the overcrowded Israeli prisons offer evidence of the country’s mishandling of the pandemic. Despite repeated calls by the UN and the World Health Organization (WHO) in particular that states should take immediate measures to help ease the crisis in their prison systems, Israel has done little for Palestinian prisoners. Al-Haq reported last year that Israel “has taken no adequate measures to improve provision of healthcare and hygiene for Palestinian prisoners” in line with the WHO’s “Preventing COVID-19 outbreak in prisons” guidance. The consequences have been dire, with the virus spreading rapidly among Palestinian prisoners.
Israel’s intentional hampering of Palestinian efforts to fight COVID-19 is consistent with its trajectory of racism, where colonized Palestinians are exploited for their land, water and cheap labor, while never factoring as a priority on Israel’s checklist, even during a deadly pandemic. Israel is an occupying power that refuses to acknowledge or respect any of its basic obligations under international law.
The latest Israeli attempt at manipulating Palestinian suffering as a result of the pandemic should also challenge the general view view of the fundamental relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. We frequently speak of Israel’s apartheid in Palestine, illustrating that assertion by referring to giant walls, fences and military checkpoints that cage in Palestinian communities and segregate them from one another.
This, however, is merely the physical manifestation of Israeli colonialism and apartheid. In Israel, apartheid runs much deeper, as it reaches almost every facet of society where Israeli Jews, including settlers, are treated as superior, while Palestinian Arabs, whether Christian or Muslim, are denied their most basic rights, including those guaranteed under international law.
While Israel’s behavior is not entirely surprising — as it is consistent with the sordid reality of military occupation and institutional racism — it is self-defeating. Despite the obvious imbalance in the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians, they are in constant contact, not as equals but as occupier and occupied. Since COVID-19 does not respect Israel’s matrix of control in Palestine, it will travel across all of the physical divides that Israel has created to ensure the permanent oppression of Palestinians. Hence, there can be no containing of the virus in Israel if it continues to spread among Palestinians.
Long after the deadly pandemic is contained, the tragedy of occupied Palestine will, sadly, continue unhindered until the day that Israel is forced to end its military occupation.