A call for COVID-19 vaccinations for Palestinians under Israeli occupation

 “As we’ve heard so often in the past year, this virus does not distinguish between borders. That’s why human rights, including the right to health, have to be universal if they are to matter- because none of us are protected, in this case quite literally, if some of us are seen as less worthy of protection than others.” – Dr. Yara Asi

With the start of COVID-19 vaccinations around the globe, there is finally hope for an end to the pandemic. In Israel, an inoculation program for Israeli citizens is moving forward quickly—but at the same time, Palestinians who live under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza are being left behind.  

Under the occupation, a Palestinian inoculation campaign cannot happen without Israeli action. However, Israel has failed to facilitate a vaccination campaign for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. After widespread international condemnation, on Feb. 1, the Israeli government delivered to the occupied West Bank 2,000 vaccines—the first of 5,000 inoculations intended for Palestinian medical staff. But today, more than five million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza continue to wait for vaccination.

Recently, AFSC hosted the webinar "The politics of COVID-19 and vaccination under Israeli occupation,” featuring two Palestinian physicians and a policy analyst discussing the impact of the pandemic on Palestinian lives. 

Here are some excerpts from our discussion: 

The pandemic is a window to systems' weaknesses, said Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a physician and president of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society. "The story of vaccination is another example of how horrible the world system is. ... Ninety-five percent of the vaccines have already been bought by rich countries—European countries, the United States, Canada, Japan … and the poor countries are left alone.”

Dr. Yara Asi, a lecturer at the University of Central Florida and an Al Shabaka policy member, discussed the need for universal access to health care and emphasized Israel’s responsibility for the Palestinian population it occupies in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza.

Dr. Mona El-Farra, a physician and director of Gaza Projects for the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA), spoke to the current conditions in Palestine, specifically the challenges facing Palestinians in Gaza.

Dr. Barghouti talked about the stark contrast between Israel providing vaccines for its nine million citizens—including 750,000 settlers living in the West Bank—while failing to provide five million Palestinians living in the occupied territory with the vaccine. In very vulnerable communities, such as refugee camps with high population density, it is challenging to create quarantines and prevent community spread. The Palestinian Authority faces tremendous challenges in providing health care to its community, which is fragmented by walls, checkpoints, and expanding Israeli settlement colonies.

There have been 2,000 deaths in the occupied Palestinian territory due to COVID-19, and the economy is expected to contract by up to 35%, said Dr. Asi. “Every day that passes without widescale vaccinations brings the Palestinians to a situation that will be extremely difficult to recover from in a post-COVID world where our typical donors, the people that Palestinians depend on, are facing their funding priorities.” Every analysis of the Palestinian health care system points to the occupation as the most significant social determinant of health in the territories, she says. “There is no aspect of Palestinian life that is not negatively affected by the occupation. This was true before COVID-19, and barring some significant political movement in the next year or so, this will be the case after COVID-19.”

There are many challenges facing Palestinian providers of health care in the West Bank, particularly to communities living under “Area C,” or 62% of the land in the West Bank under full Israeli military control, said Dr. Barghouti. Efforts by civil society to create clinics and provide preventative care and health information were stopped by the Israeli army. With Israel in control of the borders, any vaccines entering the West Bank or Gaza will need approval by Israel.

The Palestinian Authority asked Israel for the vaccine through the World Health Organization (WHO), specifically for health care workers, and was refused. Dr. Barghouti, who sits on the health committee that made this request, said that Israel responded that it was not their responsibility. “Sometimes Israel claims that according to the Oslo Agreements, it is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority to take care of health. But this is only half the truth. Because the Oslo Agreement itself says that in the case of pandemics, Israel is also responsible for the provision of safety for the population,” said Dr. Barghouti. 

Dr. Asi gave further background on international protections and the Oslo Accords, an interim agreement in the mid-1990s that was meant to transition to a comprehensive settlement within five years. “No agreement between an occupier and an occupied population can remove the protections of the Geneva Convention. … The 4th Geneva Convention mandates many responsibilities for an occupying power towards an occupied population, including for public health, hygiene, and medical supplies. Importantly, these duties are not displaced by humanitarian aid by external actors, and no agreement between the occupied and the occupying power removes these protections.” 

Speakers encouraged people to take action by signing a petition calling on Israel to provide vaccines and to contact their members of Congress.

Tell Congress: Demand that Israel provide Palestinians living under its control with COVID-19 vaccinations—and resume vital humanitarian assistance to Palestine.

“If we want to see a change, not just U.S. policies, but in countries around the world that have a say in this, including Israel itself, it is going to take popular pressure to call attention to this and show that people have very nuanced views on this that are based in social justice and human rights,” said Dr. Asi.

Dr. El-Farra said: “In Gaza we are very, very busy surviving. On the bright side of life, we see a great deal of social solidarity. I know that resources are very, very low and limited, but we still have this. We still have a bit of voluntary work. ... Part of our strength as Palestinians, and this should be kept in your minds and your souls, is that we are still existing on the land. … Few will leave, but a majority are staying. They did not succeed to demolish or erase our culture, our identity. I am saying that for people who are losing hope in face of the future.”

Dr. Barghouti says outside pressure is needed to influence the new U.S. administration and expose “the whole apartheid system.” He encouraged an analysis that includes the equal rights of Palestinians living inside Israel and the rights of refugees to return to their homes. Using “boycotts and sanctions against apartheid is the way to social change,” he says. 

Watch a video of the full webinar.