Amid delay and denial of access by Israel, COVID-19 vaccination finally starts in Palestine

Israel’s deliberate denial of access to vaccines to the Palestinians, a violation of its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention, has been criticized by the WHO and other human rights groups with some calling it “vaccine apartheid”

February 11, 2021 by Abdul Rahman
Vaccination drive in occupied Palestine. Photo: WAFA News Agency

Vaccination against the COVID-19 virus is underway in the Palestinian occupied territories. The Palestinian Ministry of Health began vaccinations on Tuesday February 2 after the PA received 2,000 doses on February 1 from Israel. Though the Ministry is hoping to receive around 50,000 more vaccine doses from different sources soon, serious concerns exist over whether this supply and planned roll out will be sufficient given the severity of the problem.

Palestinians have claimed that the uncertainty and delay in vaccination in the occupied territories is primarily a result of Israel’s refusal to fulfill its commitments towards the occupied population. Israel’s refusal to provide vaccinations to Palestinians when it has world’s highest rate of vaccination, with even illegal settlers living in the occupied territories having received doses, is further evidence of its institutional apartheid. The allegations of discrimination against Palestinians in vaccine roll out have also been raised by the WHO and the UN.

Insufficient numbers

According to the health minister, Mai al-Kaila, given the insufficient numbers of doses, in the first round, the PA has prioritized vaccinating medical staff working in the intensive care units treating COVID-19 patients.

The occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza have a combined population of over 4.5 million. Palestine has recorded over 185,700 cases of COVID-19 infections so far with over 2,100 deaths. A late surge in infections in November and December took an immense toll and forced prolonged lockdowns. The occupied territories have higher infection and death rates than Israel.

Though Mai al-Kaila expressed hope that Palestine will soon receive 5,000 more doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, apart from an additional 37,000 doses of vaccines under the WHO’s COVAX initiative, the dates of their arrival are not finalized yet. The West Bank and Gaza are also expected to get an additional 240,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from the COVAX initiative though the timeline is not clear. The PA has also purchased the AstraZeneca vaccine on its own, some of which will be administered in the Gaza strip as well. However, these projected numbers, even if they materialize, will not be enough for meeting Palestine’s vaccination requirements. The PA will, therefore, need support from the international community to fulfill its targets in combating the pandemic, a task enormously complicated by Israel’s blatant medical apartheid.

Israel’s medical apartheid

In December 2020, Palestinian organizations and Israeli human rights groups had issued a joint statement asking Israel to provide necessary vaccines to Palestine citing Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention under which the occupier must ensure prevention of the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics in areas under its control.

The statement also said that “where budgetary shortages resulting from the long-term restrictions imposed by the occupation and blockade limit the ability of the Palestinian Authority to purchase and distribute vaccines, Israel must provide the necessary funds, as part of its legal obligations,” adding that the amount given must not be deducted from “the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA.”

Israel did not pay any heed to such pleas and instead reportedly denied requests last month from the WHO to provide vaccines to the Palestinians. Israel’s public security minister Amir Ohana also went ahead recently and publicly denied any possibility of vaccination of Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli jails.

Israeli health minister Yuli Eldelstein had claimed last week that as per Oslo accords responsibility of health care for the Palestinians lies with Palestinian Authority and not with Israel. However, the UN had opined that as per the international law Israel is primarily responsible and it takes precedence over agreements such as Oslo.

Israel has recorded the world highest vaccination rate with at least 33 percent of its population already vaccinated, a figure 10 times higher than those in the US and UK. However, for almost two months into its vaccination drive, it turned a deaf ear to the PA’s requests for assistance in the occupied territories. It was only on January 31 that Israel promised the PA 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

Rola Abdullah, an engineer working in the West Bank and a member of the Palestinian People’s Party, spoke to Peoples Dispatch and claimed that Israel deliberately denied vaccine assistance to the occupied territories by withholding clearance to the Sputnik V vaccine, which the PA had approved for emergency use in the middle of January itself. It was only after international pressure that Israel allowed for Palestinians to have access to the Sputnik V vaccine.

Israeli policy of delaying or denying vaccines as well as thwarting almost all attempts by the PA to access vaccines for Palestinians has once raised the question of its violation of its obligations as an occupying force under the international law and talks of its policy of apartheid against Palestinians.

Even the PA, however, has been criticized for its lack of planning and timely action on vaccination by activists in Palestine. However, this is contextualized within the larger role played by Israeli occupation. For instance, Rola emphasizes that while the PA could have been more proactive on the vaccination front, she also underlines its lack of funds and Israeli restrictions as the main reasons for the delay.

The PA has stated that it does not have sufficient resources to buy the required number of vaccine doses and is heavily dependent on the WHO’s COVAX initiative which so far has no declared schedule of delivery. They have also highlighted that they do not have adequate storage facilities for the Pfizer vaccine which needs special cold storage conditions.

Destruction of Palestinian health infrastructure

Even before the deeply unequal vaccine roll out, Palestinians were already suffering disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic, with regards to infection and death rates, economic impact and other impacts on the social and economic life of the people. A key element behind the rapid spread of the virus in Palestinian territories has to do with Israel’s policy of destroying Palestinian health infrastructure and creating hurdles in the process of its modernization. The most obvious example is the case of Gaza where due to bombings and more than a decade old blockade, the majority of its 1.8 million residents are deprived of basic health facilities making them especially vulnerable to diseases such as COVID-19.

According a report published by the WHO in January, the year 2020, including the period of the the pandemic, saw an intensification of Israeli attacks on Palestinian health facilities. The report lists at least 59 such attacks. More than 60 percent of these attacks were in the nature of physical attacks on health workers, ambulances and other essential service providers. There have been several cases where the Israeli occupation forces have detained or harassed in various ways nurses, doctors and even patients.

Further, Israeli forces also demolished some of the COVID-19 facilities in the occupied areas. All of factors majorly diminished the access of the bulk of the Palestinian population, particularly the poor, to basic health care during the pandemic.