Israel criticised over vaccination exclusion of Palestinians

What’s happening? Israel is facing criticism from human rights organisations for excluding Palestinians from its vaccine programme, which is seeing jabs administered to 150,000 people among its nine million-person population a day. Israeli health officials have said it is in the country’s interest to vaccinate people in Palestinian territories but it will be prioritising its own citizens. The Palestinian Authority has yet to secure any doses for its people, with the first vaccines potentially arriving in February via the World Health Organization’s COVAX programme that could inoculate 20% of Palestinians. Palestinian Authority officials recently told reporters they had asked Israel for 10,000 vaccines to administer to frontline workers, a request that was refused.

Why does this matter? Consideration should be given to the experiences of populations living under duress during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how these groups will continue to be treated.

One of China’s largest recent Covid-19 outbreaks, for example, occurred in a Xinjiang factory believed to be tied to forced Uighur labour. Some activists have also accused China of potentially leveraging vaccine access to apply “significant pressure on Turkey” to ratify a treaty that would allow Uighurs to be deported. Reports that personal protective equipment and medical masks manufactured by Uighur labourers are believed to have been sold by at least two major distributors in Europe adds another complex angle for global supply chains.

Reports have also alluded to the difficulty in vaccinating Native American populations living on reservations. Although Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 – being over four times more likely to be hospitalised – some individuals are wary of vaccination. This scepticism is exacerbated by the historical context of living under duress and the demographic’s experiences of discrimination in the US. A case in point is when in May last year a cohort of Indigenous tribes sued the US Treasury, stating they had not yet received the $8bn stimulus they were mandated to receive by April 2020.

It should be pointed out that, regardless of claims on territory, it is in everyone’s interest for both the Israeli and Palestinian populations – which mix with each other – to be vaccinated. It should also be noted that, despite its aggressive vaccination programme, Israel is still tightening lockdown restrictions as virus cases surge.

A Palestinian vaccination programme may be particularly logistically challenging given a number of factors stemming from the Israel-Palestine conflict. Gaza’s health care system, for example, has recently been considered at risk of collapse due to rapidly surging Covid-19 cases, as reported in Israeli newspaper Haaretz. This is compounded by the ongoing land, sea and air blockade of the Gaza Strip, imposed by Israel since 2007 and bolstered by Egypt. The UN has previously noted these restrictions’ effect on the supply of essential resources – impeding access to health, education, construction materials, infrastructure development, water and sanitation services.

Reports about vaccine distribution have also drawn attention to Gaza’s electricity supply being controlled and only accessible for several hours a day, which complicates the logistics of disseminating refrigerated vaccines. A further factor in this equation is the impact on electricity generators for hospitals, as well as limited access to personal protective equipment for health staff – especially salient in light of Covid-19.

Israel has faced criticism for its policy both from within and outside its borders. Civil society organisations including Rabbis for Human Rights, the Physicians for Human Rights group (including its Israeli branch) and Amnesty International have called on vaccines to be made available to Palestinians.

It’s also been pointed out that, under the Geneva Convention, occupying powers bear the responsibility for people living in the territories they administer. This specifically includes the liability “to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” (Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention). The UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, in a similar vein, has noted that “under International Humanitarian Law, an occupying power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining public health and hygiene in the occupied territory to the fullest means available to it”.

Israeli labour groups have also called for greater availability of vaccines, noting the economic impact excluding Palestinians could have. In Israel’s construction sector Palestinians are estimated to constitute around one-third of the workforce. The Israeli Builders Association has called for the government to allow these workers to get vaccinated inside Israel, mitigating a turbulent year for the $43bn industry.

Lateral thought from Curation – It will be interesting to see whether similar developments occur in Iran, the Middle East’s hardest-hit state by the Covid-19 pandemic. Though a different context, Iran has contested that US sanctions are prohibiting it from making advance payments to the global COVAX facility established for providing the vaccine to lower-income nations, once again raising some humanitarian questions about whether providing access to vaccinations should be a priority over geopolitical disputes.

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Abir Qazilbash

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