By Nadine Sayegh
Israel is taking pride in leading the world’s vaccination campaign with the most vaccines administered per capita. The government has vaccinated 2 million Israelis since the beginning of the vaccination drive some three weeks ago, and purchased 14 million vaccines to be streamlined to a population of 9 million.
Despite a spike in cases due to the variant strains and a potential extension to the lockdown, they have thus far proven an “exemplary” model. As such, this leaves no surprise then at the criticism that accompanies the decision not to do the same for the people and places they are illegally occupying.
Israel has been heavily criticised for the decision not to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the West Bank, and Gaza, home to approximately 5 million people.
As an occupying power, Israel has a legal obligation under Article 56 of the fourth Geneva Convention to secure and provide healthcare to the occupied people and this holds true particularly during an ever-evolving global pandemic.
This discrimination highlights the extent of the apartheid regime on two counts: the first, as an abhorrent violation of human rights and second, absolute irresponsibility in handling a viral health crisis.
The Palestinian Authority has only managed to secure aid through the World Health Organization (WHO) for the COVAX vaccine to cover 20 percent of the population. They are also negotiating 2 million vaccines from AstraZeneca as well as the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. However, none of this will be available until some time next month.
“Israel actually is violating international law because it is denying its responsibility as an occupying power, Israelis are getting the vaccines, and Palestinians are getting nothing,” says Dr Mustafa Barghouti, a physician, member of the Palestinian Parliament and head of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society.
Weaponising the virus
A key issue to note in the ways in which Israel is not only skirting their legal responsibility, but actively rejecting it and ultimately attempting to weaponise the virus against the Palestinians.
They outright refused the request of the WHO to provide vaccinations for medical staff in the West Bank and Gaza. A report cited two health officials from the Palestinian Authority requested 10,000 doses for frontline and healthcare workers. The lead coordinator between Palestine and Israel, Hussein al Sheikh, confirmed that Israel also refused this request.
Further to this weaponisation, Palestinian prisoners are also, intentionally, being denied the vaccine despite the ripe conditions for the spread of the virus. The Israeli head of Internal Security, Amir Ohana, noted on two occasions that he has no intention to provide access to Covid-19 vaccines. This decision is currently being petitioned in the Israeli High Court.
Despite these attempts to diminish the Palestinian population and antagonise international organisations, the science holds that ultimately this will only do harm to the Israeli population as well.
As the West Bank is crowded with settlements and settlers, the population remains in close quarters. We are looking at a geographical space hosting around 12 million people in which the virus can move to different hosts.
“In reality, what his government is doing is actually hurting the Israelis, as well, because you cannot reach herd community if you have 8 million people vaccinated and 5.2 million people not vaccinated, especially that 130,000 workers will continue to go to Israel for work and will interact with Israelis, of course, and there are 750,000 other Israelis, illegal settlers, in the West Bank, who will continue to commute and communicate with the 3.1 million unvaccinated Palestinians. So, practically, this is a crime against Palestinians and a crime against the health of Israelis,” explains Dr Barghouti.
This means that the entire demographic will not be able to reach herd immunity. A cause for further concern are viral mutations; if the virus mutates in an immunocompromised Palestinian, for example, it will not discriminate who it will re-infect. Thus far, the vaccines have proven effective against the current strains but these conditions are what give rise to potentially stronger mutations.
Different vaccines, vaccination schedules, and marginalising an area of a demographic is a recipe for health disaster that will be indiscriminate in its severity.
The Palestinian people are facing poor and antagonising local governance, a health crisis that has so far taken the lives of 1,500 people, and a military occupation that is legally failing to be an occupying power.
It is critical, not only for the Palestinians, but everyone living there that a fair, evenly distributed, and tightly coordinated vaccination regimen be put in place before the virus mutates and dominates the current treatment.