Israel is now celebrating its emergence from pandemic lockdowns after leading the world in its vaccine rollout. More than half of its population has now received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Despite these impressive results, criticisms of Israel’s exclusion of Palestinians from its vaccination campaign have come to the fore.
Many point out that Israel cannot achieve herd immunity without inoculating Palestinians, especially if herd immunity isn’t achieved at the global level. The British, South African, and African variants and their higher transmission and fatality rates demonstrate the significance of the threat of potential mutations. Given this, Israel cannot ensure herd immunity without inoculating Palestinians. In the face of this threat, vaccination campaigns have now been expanded to include Palestinians with Israeli residency status in East Jerusalem. Since March, Israel has also been vaccinating Palestinians who work in Israel but reside in the West Bank. However, the vaccination of these relatively small groups of Palestinians is hardly enough to ensure Israeli or Palestinian public health.
Another important and perhaps more controversial matter relates to stark disparities in the public health realities of Israel on the one hand and the West Bank and Gaza on the other. In February, the Israeli government eased lockdowns thanks to the efficacy of its vaccination campaign in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, while the Palestinian authorities imposed a lockdown in the West Bank following a sharp rise in both infections and deaths. The situation in Gaza is even more urgent, where the health infrastructure is ill-equipped and unprepared to treat patients in this densely populated area.
Unequitable distribution of the vaccine is not only a problem in Israel and Palestine, it is global. “Vaccine apartheid” has resulted in a situation where 80% of all vaccines are destined for the world’s ten richest countries. Indeed, as one of these countries, Israel has paid a higher premium for its vaccines – at an average of $47 per person – whereas the US and the EU paid $19.50 and $14.76 per dose, respectively. Palestinians, on the other hand, fall $30 million short of being able to fund their vaccination plans “even after factoring in support from a global vaccine scheme for poorer economies”. Therefore, the Work Bank urged Israel to donate surplus doses to the West Bank and Gaza. Several international organizations have also criticized Israel for excluding most Palestinians from its vaccination campaign.
Israel responds to such criticism by claiming that the Oslo Accords stipulate that it is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority’s health ministry to vaccinate Palestinians. Nonetheless, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a statement underlining that according to Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, it is Israel’s duty to provide Palestinians with access to COVID-19 vaccines within the occupied territories. Considering the fact that international law takes priority over the Oslo Accords, Israel would do well to shoulder greater responsibility.
Yet, instead of taking responsibility, Israel is actually making it more challenging for Palestinians to get access to vaccines. In particular, Gaza has been facing logistical challenges in receiving vaccines due to the blockade that has been imposed on the area by Israel and Egypt since 2007. Thus, the exclusion of Palestinians from Israel’s vaccination program is considered as “reflective of a system of apartheid”, that is, in the words of the UN, “morally and legally unacceptable”.