Israel’s vaccine racism

Israeli ambulance and medical worker in PPE

The corporate media has been abuzz with praise for the rapidity of the Israeli state’s vaccination programme, which at time of writing has seen 25% of Israeli citizens receive the first dose of the vaccine. The world was treated to headlines like ‘How Israel Became a World Leader in Vaccinating Against Covid-19’ (New York Times); ‘Israel leads virus vaccine race’ (BBC); and ‘Israel sets pace with Covid vaccination “overdrive”’ (Financial Times). However, such praise quickly drew criticism as people pointed out the dark side of Israel’s vaccination programme: the unequal access to it experienced by the Palestinians living under Israeli rule. WESAM KHALED reports.

As an occupying power, Israel has an obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention to ‘ensure public health and hygiene in the occupied territory’, including ‘measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics’. Despite this, the five million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are excluded from Israel’s vaccination drive. All Israeli citizens over 45 years old can obtain the first dose, including settlers living in illegal Jewish-only settlements throughout the West Bank, yet Palestinians living in the same territory cannot. This blatantly racist policy echoes countless forms of discrimination inflicted on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation, with dire health consequences. Over 172,000 Palestinians in the occupied territories have tested positive for Covid-19, of whom over 1,900 have died.

Zionist apologists have claimed that Israel has withheld the vaccine from Palestinians because under the 1993 Oslo Accords it is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to maintain international vaccination standards in the Palestinian territories. General vaccination standards are very different from a response to a sudden pandemic; in fact, the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement specifically requires the Zionist state to assist the PA with combating ‘epidemics and contagious disease’. Moreover, as the PA has pointed out, the Oslo Accords restrict the PA from operating in ‘Area C’, which comprises 60% of the West Bank. Experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council also rejected this Israeli argument, saying that the Oslo Accords must be interpreted consistently with international law and do not absolve Israel of its responsibilities as an occupying power.

Ohad Zemet, a spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy to the UK, put forward another defence of this discriminatory policy. Zemet claims that Israel had not sent any vaccines to the PA because it had not yet received any requests to do so. This is of course an outright lie; Palestinian health officials have confirmed that a request to Israel in early January to sell the PA a mere 10,000 vaccines to cover frontline Palestinian medical workers was rejected by Israel’s health ministry. The Zionists denied a similar request from the World Health Organisation’s mission to the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Israeli health minister Yuli Edelstein has said simply that Israel ‘will consider’ providing vaccines to the PA after all Israeli residents have been vaccinated. 

This discrimination was set to extend to Palestinians in Israeli prisons as well. Public Security Minister Amir Ohana had initially said that Palestinian prisoners would be the last to be immunised after other Israeli prisoners. After a backlash, the Israeli Prison Service relented, saying it would be immunising all prisoners equally. Israel holds 4,400 Palestinian prisoners, including 160 children. Israeli courts ruled in July of last year that Palestinian prisoners have no right to physical distancing to protect against Covid-19. 265 Palestinian prisoners have tested positive for the virus.

All this must be put in the context of Israel’s crushing occupation of Palestine. As Physicians for Human Rights Israel points out, ‘Israel’s responsibility stems from its prolonged occupation and control of almost all aspects of lives in the occupied Palestinian territories.’ The devastation of the Palestinian economy resulting from this control has left the PA unable to afford vaccines without international aid, and has debilitated the West Bank’s health care capacity. The situation is even worse in Gaza, where the siege imposed by Israel and Egypt for 14 years had already crippled the economy and health care provision well before the pandemic began. In a blow to Israel’s carefully managed reputation, the prominent Israeli human rights group B’Tselem published a report in January declaring that Israel is not a democracy but oversees an apartheid regime ‘from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea’.

The PA has since managed to procure vaccines from other sources, but has warned its first shipments will not arrive until late February or early March. In the meantime, the virus will continue to spread in the occupied territories – and Zionists will continue to look on in indifference at the impacts of Israeli racism on Palestinian lives.

 Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 280 February/March 2021