By Motasem A Dalloul
In violation of all religious norms as well as international laws and conventions, Israel is weaponising the Covid-19 vaccine against the Palestinians, whose land, homes and rights are under constant threat from the occupation state.
The Israeli Health Ministry began its vaccination programme on 20 December. Officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that millions of doses had been bought, enough for everyone in Israel. This was deceitful, because the occupation government is not vaccinating some of the most vulnerable people under its control: the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, for whom Israel is legally and morally responsible; and Palestinian prisoners in its jails.
The latter was made clear on 26 December, when Public Security Minister Amir Ohana ordered that security prisoners in Israel be removed from the list of priority groups for the vaccine. According to the Times of Israel, Ohana told the Israel Prison Service only to vaccinate staff in the prisons where such prisoners are held.
The minister thus disregarded the recommendations of the Health Ministry and the fact that the only security prisoners in Israel are Palestinians, who endure very harsh conditions in overcrowded jails, making them the most vulnerable to catching Covid-19 in the country. Around 200 Palestinian prisoners have caught the coronavirus in Israeli jails to date.
The UN has reported that the Israeli human rights organisation Physicians for Human Rights receives around 400 complaints annually from Palestinian prisoners and their families about prison conditions. Ohana, though, insists that his decision stands. He confirmed this last Friday in a letter to Israel’s Deputy Attorney General, Amit Marari, who had told him that his instruction not to vaccinate prisoners at this stage was not within his authority, and prisoners must receive the vaccine.
Five Israeli rights groups filed an appeal to the Israeli High Court on Sunday against Ohana’s decision. “According to professional sources,” the petition stated, “prisoners are an at-risk population and action must be taken to vaccinate them in parallel with the at-risk populations at large.”
As far as the Palestinians in the occupied territories are concerned, Israel has done nothing to facilitate the distribution of vaccine for them. Regardless of the existence of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, these territories are still under full Israeli occupation and control, and the state has a legal responsibility to provide basic essentials to everyone living under occupation, a responsibility that it ignores routinely.
In the West Bank, the Apartheid Separation Wall and military checkpoints make access to healthcare very difficult for the Palestinians. In Gaza, the Israeli-led blockade on the territory since 2007 has seen the healthcare sector almost collapse. Hospitals suffer from a severe shortage of medicines, medical disposables and medical equipment, adequate electricity supplies and fresh water. Hundreds of patients have died unnecessarily due to these shortages.
Under Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the occupier of any country has the duty to ensure “the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.” Israel thus has a legal obligation to provide the coronavirus vaccine to the Palestinians living under its occupation.
Israel weaponisation of the vaccine is clear from its condition that it would never allow its entry into the Gaza Strip until the return of the Israeli soldiers (or their bodies) captured during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in 2014 and held by the Palestinian resistance ever since. However, no official Israeli claim has been made in this regard, but as neither Israeli officials nor Hamas have denied these reports, they are likely to be accurate.
“Israel is exploiting Hamas’ helplessness to halt the spread of the coronavirus and conditioning aid for the pandemic on the return of Israeli captives and missing soldiers,” wrote Gada Majadli in Haaretz on 29 December. She stressed that allowing the vaccine into Gaza is not a charitable act, but Israel’s “legal and humanitarian duty.”
The Centre for Political and Development Studies (CPDS) in Gaza has criticised this condition and said that Israel is adopting “a racist policy” on the vaccination issue. “Israel is exploiting the issue of the coronavirus vaccine in order to achieve political gains,” the CPDS pointed out. “This is a flagrant violation of international law.”
Last week, the Israeli rights group Gisha-Maslak also commented on these reports, reiterating that, “Israel is obligated to protect the health and safety of all people living under its control, including by ensuring that the vaccine is available in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza… Israel must contribute to covering the cost of the vaccine and its distribution, unconditionally.”
Israeli journalist Amira Hass had this to say in Haaretz: “Ohana has developed this prevailing Israeli trend, which must continue forever, that the Palestinian prisoners and their families must be continually punished… The Palestinians are being systematically prosecuted, away from the context of their life which includes their being subject to systematic and institutionalised violence under the Israeli occupation.”
Based on this distorted logic, she added, the Israeli settlers, who are not living in their land — “I mean the settlements” — get the vaccine, “while the Palestinians, who are the owners of the land, stay out of the calculations of the state.”