Standing before a Boeing Dreamliner as another huge shipment of coronavirus vaccine was unloaded at Ben Gurion airport this week, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu made an audacious pledge.
“We will vaccinate everyone by the end of March, and become the first country in the world to emerge from corona,” he declared, adding that the newly-arrived Pfizer-BioNTech stocks would allow the government to ramp up delivery to a rate of 170,000 shots a day.
But Netanyahu’s promise to vaccinate “everyone” doesn’t extend to nearly 5 million Palestinians living under Israel’s effective control, for whom the prospect of a vaccine remains far off.
While Israel’s world-beating vaccination programme does cover its Arab citizens, and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, millions of Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and Gaza, are excluded from the rollout. Under the programme, Israeli officials deliver vaccines to Jewish settlers living deep inside the West Bank, but Palestinians living in surrounding towns go without.
Meanwhile, the staggering effectiveness of Israel’s “Operation Back to Life” – enabled by having paid a premium to secure the vaccine early – means nearly three-quarters of Israelis over 60 have already received their first jab, with booster shots already being delivered. The country of 9 million has delivered nearly 24 vaccine doses for every hundred of its citizens – streets ahead, on a per capita basis, of the only other contenders in the global vaccine race: the UAE (14), Bahrain (6), the UK (5) and US (3).
For critics, the stark disparity over vaccines in the region has only highlighted the entrenched discrimination of life under Israeli occupation. Rights groups and Palestinian officials have accused Israel of shirking its legal and moral duty to ensure vaccines are delivered in the occupied territories, amid growing calls – including a petition signed by hundreds of rabbis – to secure vaccines for Palestinians.
“The vaccination campaign is just further exposing this reality where you have a two-tier system – where you treat part of the population you control with rights and protection, and you deny the others,” Saleh Higazi, Amnesty International’s Middle East and north Africa deputy director, told VICE World News.
“This is the point where the institutionalised discrimination shows very clearly. They’re all under Israel’s effective control, but the state values the lives of some over others.”
Amnesty, along with other rights groups and public health experts, says Israel’s obligations under international law are specifically laid out in the Geneva Conventions, which state it has a duty to maintain public health “in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of ... measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
Israeli officials would not comment on the record to VICE World News, but have said that the Palestinian Authority bears the responsibility to meet the healthcare needs of its citizens under the terms of the Oslo Accords, the interim peace agreements signed in the 1990s that granted the Palestinians limited self-governance, although their borders remain effectively controlled by Israel.
“I don’t think that there’s anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would be taking a vaccine from the Israeli citizen, and, with all the goodwill, give it to our neighbours,” Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told Sky News, adding that Israel would consider providing excess vaccines to the Palestinians once its own population was inoculated.
"They have to learn how to take care of themselves.”
The Palestinian Authority rejects Israel’s claims it has no responsibility to secure vaccines for the occupied West Bank, or Gaza. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Israel had been “ignoring its duties as an occupation power and committing racial discrimination against the Palestinian people, depriving them of their right to healthcare.”
“The search by the Palestinian leadership to secure the vaccines from various sources doesn’t exempt Israel from its responsibilities towards the Palestinian people in providing the vaccines,” it said.
For its part, the poorly-resourced Palestinian Authority is now attempting to compete in the cut-throat global market for vaccines, seeking them directly from suppliers – it’s reached an agreement with drugmaker AstraZeneca – as well as under the auspices of a World Health Organisation scheme to assist poorer countries.
But the first shipments could be months away, with the Palestinian Authority saying Sunday it did not expect to see the AstraZeneca vaccines until March, by which stage Israel expects to be eyeing the finish line of its national vaccination campaign.
Yara Asi, a teacher in the Department of Health Management and Informatics at the University of Central Florida who has family in the West Bank, said Israel’s attempts to avoid responsibility for the occupied territories during the pandemic was symbolic of the broader crisis engulfing the Palestinians.
Under the status quo, she told VICE World News, the Palestinian Authority “doesn’t control its own borders, its imports, who comes in and out of its country.”
“All of this is under Israel’s control – so to now question whether Israel is the occupying power, and whether they have responsibility, is ... disingenuous.”
When it came to the healthcare of Palestinians, she said, “the Palestinian Authority doesn’t have the capacity, Israel feels it no longer has the responsibility, so what happens is all the holes are patched by humanitarian organisations.”
The dire situation had been allowed to persist for decades, she said, with healthcare “seen as secondary to hard, tangible issues like land.”
“But when it comes down to something like a pandemic, it’s exposed what’s behind this façade. It’s about a population of 5 million that isn’t served by anybody.”
Aside from the legal debate over who bears ultimate responsibility, groups like the influential Rabbis for Human Rights organisation have stressed a moral imperative for Israel to assist the Palestinians, arguing for the religious obligation “not to show indifference as our neighbour suffers, but rather to mobilise and offer help in times of need.”
Meanwhile, Asi and others point out there is also a clear pragmatic reason for Israel to help inoculate their neighbours, given the thousands of Palestinian workers from the West Bank who enter Israel daily.
Even Edelstein, Israel’s Health Minister, acknowledged his government’s clear interest in vaccinating Palestinians, telling Sky News: “We do understand that it's in Israeli interests that there will be less cases on the Palestinian side.
“Many of the Palestinians are working here in Israel. You can't divide the two neatly and say, you know, ‘They can deal with it themselves; it's not our issue.’ It is our issue.”
Dr Medhat Abbas, consultant of international affairs at the ministry of health in Hamas-controlled Gaza, told VICE World News he believed that Israel did have a responsibility to secure vaccines for the Palestinians. “If you put someone in jail, you are responsible for feeding them and treating them,” he said.
But despite this, he had no expectation that Israel would intervene. For many Palestinians, the notion of receiving any assistance from a bitter enemy is absurd.
“Why do you expect Israelis to give vaccines to Palestinians?” he said.
“It’s not the only crime committed against our people by those killers. They are occupying us and depriving us of many things, not only the vaccine. They have deprived us from our lands, from our lives, from medicine, from travelling outside, from our freedom. We expect nothing from these people.”