Human rights defenders call for end to Israel 'vaccine apartheid'

An Israeli soldier checks the documents of Palestinians who work in Israel as they line up to receive their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a coronavirus vaccination center set up in a factory in the joint Israeli-Palestinian industrial zone of Barkan, Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Credit: . (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel is a world leader in Covid-19 vaccinations, inoculating more than half of its nearly nine million population. There is a sense of normalcy in the country as Israel started easing lockdown restrictions in February following studies that the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccines were proving effective in preventing hospitalisations and deaths.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared at a press conference with the five millionth person vaccinated against the coronavirus, and the government finally began immunising Palestinians working in the country and in settlements in the occupied West Bank, with this disparity drawing wide international criticism.

On Tuesday, Israel’s ‘vaccine apartheid’ was the topic of discussion in an event held in parallel to the United Nations Human Rights Council 46th session. Concerned human rights advocates and UN officials highlighted the stark inequalities between the inoculated Israeli population and the neglected situation of five million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

“The disparity in access to vaccines - with Palestinians having very little access and Israel leading the world in vaccine coverage - is a direct result of the apartheid and colonial aspects that characterize its occupation,” said international law expert, Nuriya Oswald of the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, one of the organisers of the event.

Ironically, Israel wants to take part in the ‘vaccine diplomacy’ worldwide,  after Netanyahu announced plans to share its surplus doses overseas to allies in Africa, Europe and Latin America. In addition,  last week the prime minister met with Austria and Denmark, making promises to join forces in the global fight against the coronavirus.

Already in occupied East Jerusalem, Palestinians are ‘privileged’ an Israeli resident status and are thus entitled to receive inoculations from Israel.

However, even with the gains made in quickly vaccinating its own population and being received by international allies, Israel has come under fire for its treatment of Palestians in occupied territories. Israel officials have said that based on the Oslo accords, signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in 1993 and 1995, the Palestinian Authority health ministry is responsible.

Israel however, seems to omit the part which says “Israel and the Palestinian side shall exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, shall co-operate in combating them and shall develop methods for [the] exchange of medical files and documents.”

Even still, according to UN experts and international law experts including Oswald, international law in particular the Fourth Geneva convention takes precedent, requiring the occupying power to provide healthcare.

Speaking at the event, Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, UN Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health said “the right to health is a fundamental human rights issue that is guided by international human rights law which applies in full to the Palestinian territories.”

“This law stipulates that everyone enjoys the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, and the denial of an equal access to healthcare, such as the one basis, and based on ethnicity or race, or displacement is discriminatory and unlawful.”

She adds that there are structural and socioeconomic factors which impact on those in the Palestinian territories’ ability to access to health care. There are disproportionately negative effects on populations that are already in precarious situations and as such there is a ‘moral and legal’ responsibility for the Israeli government to vaccinate the populations including in occupied territories.  The discrepancies in the vaccination campaigns prove “differential access to necessary healthcare” which is “unacceptable in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century, ” said Mofokeng.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) more than 240,000 Palestinians in the occupied territories have tested positive for Covid-19 since March 2020, with the case fatality rate for these areas at 1.1 per cent, whereas Israel’s is 0.76 per cent.

The Palestinian Authority, in charge of the autonomous areas of occupied West Bank, have only very recently started receiving supplies of Covid-19 vaccines and in February Palestine started immunising against the coronavirus after receiving 2,000 Moderna doses from Israel.

On Monday, the Palestinian leader Mohammed Ishtaye said that great progress has been made in obtaining the coronavirus vaccines, which include the delivery of 10,000 doses of Russian-Sputnik doses to the West Bank with 2,000 being sent to Gaza adding to the 20,000 donated by the United Arab Emirates.

Ishtaye shared the news in the weekly cabinet meeting that “we made significant progress in the contacts, which were successful, in relation to obtaining the vaccines, either through the Covax scheme, or through multinational companies that produce the vaccines.”

The Covax equitable vaccine sharing scheme led by the WHO coalition would cover up to 20 per cent of the vaccine requirement for the Palestinians. The West Bank and Gaza is set to receive an initial  240,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, and 37,440 doses of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Since February, however, there has been a sharp increase in infections which prompted Ishtaye’s call for a five-day lockdown starting on 15 March. According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, on Monday, 2298 new Covid-19 cases were reported, 22 more deaths and 1,356 recoveries in the Palestinian territories.

Even as Palestinians receive the vaccine, Israel has been accused of neglecting Palestinians under their mandate and for failing to abide by their legal obligations to ensure the protection of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli prisons.

In a joint written statement by Al-Haq, Law in the Service of Man, Al Mezan Centre for Human Rights, Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and Palestinian Centre for Human Rights submitted to the 46th session of the HRC, it states under the pandemic, Palestinians continue to be subjected to harsh detention conditions that do not align with the bare minimum of adequate living standards “leaving Palestinian prisoners and detainees unprotected and exposed to the rapid spread of Covid-19.”

Milena Ansari from the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association said: “It is imperative to expose the gravity of the Israeli prison services policy of deliberate medical negligence, oppressing the rights of Palestinian prisoners and detainees infringing on their right to health and dignified treatment.”

Ansari explains that currently there are 700 sick Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons 300 of which have chronic illnesses, including 11 cancer patients in 2020 alone. In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, Palestinian prisoners have died in Israeli prisons, with “overcrowding, insufficient ventilation and lack of hygiene products, making it nearly impossible to restrain the virus’ spread inside prisons.”

The event concluded with calls to the international community to press Israel into ending the apartheid, especially during this health crisis.

Update on 24 March, 2020: Following the publication of this article, we received the following statement from the Israeli mission to the United Nations in Geneva:

Any attempt to portray Israel as an apartheid State and to politicise Israel’s successful vaccination campaign is cynical and inappropriate. Israel is working to vaccinate all of its citizens in a rapid and equitable manner, regardless of religion, ethnicity, or gender.

Moreover, according to the Oslo Accords, which are the existing applicable legal framework between Israel and the Palestinians, all health-related matters were delegated to the sole responsibility of the PA, and this framework applies to the treatment of the COVID-19 outbreak. The PA does not deny this obligation, and has acted accordingly in its independent response to the pandemic, including in working with the World Health Organization and several governments and pharmaceutical companies to acquire the vaccine.

Despite this, Israel has assisted the Palestinian healthcare system and enabled the arrival of international assistance since the outbreak of the pandemic. It has also supplied a limited number of vaccines to the PA, and the Israeli authorities have begun an operation to vaccinate more than 120,000 Palestinian workers employed in Israel and in the industrial areas of Judea and Samaria, in collaboration with the Palestinian Authority. To this day, over 105,000 of these workers have received the first shot. Lastly, Israel and the UN are working in cooperation to ensure that the Gaza Strip overcomes the outbreak of this pandemic.

The fight against the pandemic is global, and we are pleased the Palestinians began receiving vaccines through COVAX. Israel will continue facilitating any assistance to the Palestinian population during the pandemic. The PA is now set to receive the vaccine earlier than most countries in the world.