The dark side of Israel’s vaccine success story

Israel is refusing to provide the vaccine to the millions of Palestinians it is forcefully ruling over.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, left, are injected with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine live on TV at the Sheba Medical Center, the country's largest hospital, in Ramat Gan near the coastal city of Tel Aviv, on December 19, 2020 [Jack Guez/AFP]

On December 19, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on live television. This kicked off a high-paced national vaccination campaign that has seen more than a million Israelis, some 12 percent of the country’s population, receive the jab in less than two weeks – the highest rate in the world.

Multiple factors paved the way for Israel to take the lead in the global vaccination race. Being a relatively small country – both by land area and population – certainly helped. Having a digitised national healthcare system which requires all citizens to be registered also contributed. Moreover, unlike other states, the Israeli government did not hesitate to recruit the army to help with the administration and distribution of the vaccine. There is also a political dimension to the fast roll out – Netanyahu is fighting for political survival and winning the vaccine race might tip the balance in his favour in the upcoming March elections.

But there is a dark side to Israel’s “vaccine success story”: While it is immunising its citizens against COVID-19 at an unrivalled rate, the Israeli government is not doing anything to vaccinate millions of Palestinians living under its military occupation. In a cruel irony,  hundreds of doses on the cusp of expiration were reportedly thrown away in Israeli clinics last week, while millions of Palestinians are being denied the vaccine.

Indeed, while the vaccine roll-out in Israel includes the Palestinian citizens of Israel, it does not include some five million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.

Since 1967, these two Palestinian territories have been under Israel’s military occupation, with the latter also suffering from a blockade since 2007.

Among many things, this regime of absolute control has had a direct and detrimental effect not only on Palestinians’ access to healthcare but also the quality of the care on offer in the West Bank and Gaza..

Israel’s occupation has left the Palestinian healthcare system undersupplied and with insufficient medical facilities. For years, rather than being allowed to develop self-sufficiency, Palestinians living in the occupied territories were forced to rely on outside help to meet their most basic healthcare needs.

Thus, when COVID-19 hit, the Palestinian authorities were in no shape to implement effective pandemic mitigation strategies or procure the necessary medications and vaccines to protect Palestinians.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is yet to secure a sufficient quantity of vaccinations to immunise the Palestinian population against COVID-19. And due to its dire financial situation, it will need significant outside help to make any substantial purchase.

Several PA officials have mentioned the possibility of obtaining a quantity from the COVAX programme, the WHO-led scheme to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to poorer countries. But it is likely this will take a long time – the vaccines intended for COVAX have not yet gained “emergency use” approval by the WHO, a precondition for distribution to begin.

In early December, the PA also claimed it reached a deal with Russia to receive some four million doses of its Sputnik V vaccine in the coming weeks. However, Russian officials recently notified the PA they do not yet have enough supplies to fulfil non-domestic orders.

All this would not have mattered, if Israel met its legal, moral and humanitarian obligation to vaccinate the Palestinians living under its military occupation.

The Israeli officials are trying to evade responsibility by claiming the PA is yet to ask Israel for assistance in procuring the vaccine, and that, under the Oslo accords which never came to fruition, all vaccination programmes in the West Bank should be led by the PA.

Yet this ignores the fact that Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically provides that an occupier has the duty of ensuring “the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. In other words, the Israeli regime has a legal obligation to procure a sufficient amount of COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians living under its military occupation.

Furthermore, both Israeli and international law ban Israel from allowing the distribution of a vaccine in Gaza and the West Bank that it has not approved for its own population. So, Israel is not only responsible for vaccinating Palestinians living in the occupied territories, but it also has a legal obligation to ensure the vaccines they eventually receive meet the approval criteria of the Israeli healthcare system.

Since the beginning of this unprecedented global public health emergency, however, Israel not only refused to live up to its clearly defined legal obligations to the Palestinian people but also created a false picture in which it is working with the PA to defeat the virus.

In March last year, for example, when it “allowed” the entry of medical supplies and equipment into Gaza, Israel received praise from the likes of the UN for “cooperating” with the Palestinians with regard to tackling COVID-19.

In effect, the Israeli regime, which singlehandedly depleted the capabilities of the Palestinian healthcare system through its decades-long military occupation, was being praised for allowing a few medical supplies donated by international actors to be transported into Gaza. This, despite its responsibility under international law as an occupying power to provide the supplies itself.

Creating the impression that Israel is helping the Palestinians in good faith to tackle the virus while keeping them under occupation, was a remarkable achievement of the Israeli propaganda machine. But this is not surprising considering that Israel had hid the violence of its regime with such illusions for decades.

Indeed, Israel is often praised by the international community and media for letting the odd Palestinian patient from Gaza receive treatment in Tel Aviv hospitals. In these “feel good” stories, however, the real reason why Palestinians need to go to Israel to receive treatment is seldom mentioned: The crippling military siege that prevents local hospitals from obtaining the necessary equipment and supplies to provide treatment themselves.

No doubt, whenever the PA succeeds in securing a vaccine shipment, this achievement will once again be presented to the international community as a sign of “great coordination” between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Indeed, to deliver the vaccines to the Palestinians living in occupied territories, the PA will need to coordinate with the Israeli regime, which maintains full control over everything going in and out of the West Bank and Gaza. Hence, when and if the Israelis “allow” the vaccines to be delivered to the Palestinians, they will likely be hailed by many in the international community for “cooperating” and “coordinating” with the Palestinians.

The Palestinians, of course, are not the only ones who were practically kicked out of the vaccine race even before it started. Most countries in the Global South have also been left out of the race, with most of the vaccine doses that will be available in the short-term being allocated to rich nations that have the funds, and the political might, to buy them. But Israel’s military occupation, and unrivalled control over the Palestinian population, makes the challenge facing the authorities in the West Bank and Gaza especially formidable.

Places like the occupied territories, where the health infrastructure is weak and it is difficult to maintain basic social distancing or hygiene requirements, should be prioritised in vaccination efforts. And yet, because of prevailing structures of oppression, they won’t be.

So as the world watches Israel’s speedy vaccination program in awe,  it must not ignore the bigger picture – that the Israeli regime is refusing to provide the vaccine to the millions of people it is forcefully ruling over.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.