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Covid-19: Jamaal Bowman calls on Israel to vaccinate Palestinians

US congressman likens racial disparities in US and his own experiences as Black man to 'hopelessness' Palestinians face
Jamaal Bowman
Jamaal Bowman defeated staunch Israel supporter Eliot Engel, a senior Democrat, last year (AFP/File photo)
By Ali Harb in Washington

Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a first-term progressive Democrat, has called on the Israeli government to provide vaccines for the "entire population of the West Bank and Gaza", joining a growing list of US legislators asserting that Israel has a responsibility to inoculate Palestinians.

Bowman, who represents a large Jewish community in New York, sent a letter to the acting Israeli consul general in the city on Monday, decrying that Palestinians have been "left out of Israel's rapid vaccine deployment".

"According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which obligates an occupying power to provide 'adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics,' Israel, as an occupying power, has a responsibility to provide vaccines to the Palestinian people," Bowman wrote. 

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"It is therefore concerning that Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank will be receiving the vaccine from the Israeli government, but the Palestinians in the West Bank will not."

The congressman shared the letter on Twitter on Tuesday. "Every single human being has the right to be protected from the global enemy of COVID-19," he said in a post.

"This week, I wrote to the Israeli Acting Consul General Israel Nitzan about distributing the vaccine to Palestinians, and I'm looking forward to meeting with him soon."

The congressman, who defeated staunch Israel supporter Eliot Engel in last year's primary, had faced criticism from Palestinian rights activists over deleting a tweet criticising Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for excluding Palestinians from its vaccine rollout.

"Netanyahu must ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians have access to the Covid vaccine. This cruelty is another reminder of why the occupation must end," said the now-deleted tweet, which was posted last month.

Racial disparities

In the letter, the congressman likens his experiences as an African American to Palestinians under the occupation.

"I hope you understand that this issue is personal for me. As a Black man living in America, I know the feeling of being neglected by my government and society," the congressman wrote.

"I can understand the feelings of hopelessness and despair that Palestinians living in the West Bank might feel, reading in the news that the Israeli government has no plans to vaccinate them from a deadly disease wreaking havoc around the globe. 

"I know what it feels like to see white Americans in the wealthy part of my district get different resources and treatment, while just a few blocks away, Black Americans are neglected."

'As a Black man living in America, I know the feeling of being neglected by my government'

- Jamaal Bowman, US congressman

Rasha Mubarak, the Palestinian-American founder of Unbought Power, a grassroots community advocacy group, lauded Bowman for "connecting the dots" between the disparities and injustices that Palestinians and African Americans face.

"While every struggle for freedom is different, our values historically have brought us together," Mubarak told MEE. 

"To witness Congressman Bowman on the second day of Black history month reject the notion that freedom for one people comes at the expense of another, is the solidarity we value and that we all need."

Israel, which is leading the world in the number of vaccines administered per capita, recently transferred 5,000 doses to Palestinian medical workers - a drop in the bucket for the nearly five million people living in the Palestinian territories. 

Bowman applauded the pace of Israel's immunisation drive and said he was "heartened" by the news that Israeli government has started transferring vaccines to Palestinians, but said Israel must vaccinate all Palestinians living under its control.

International law

Israel's advocates argue that according to the Oslo Accords, which govern Palestinian-Israeli relations, vaccinating Palestinians is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority, an entity with limited self-rule in the West Bank. 

However, critics argue that despite Oslo, Israel remains in total control of the Palestinian territories, including ports of entry, airspace, roads and other infrastructure needed to import, deliver and administer the vaccine.

Moreover, legal experts say international law, which clearly defines the responsibility of the occupying power to include health care and immunisation, trumps Oslo - an interim agreement that the Israeli government constantly violates.

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"The Palestinians don't control their airspace or land borders or sea space," Ahmad Abuznaid, the executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian rights, told MEE last week. 

"We use the Israeli shekel. There are Israeli checkpoints littered out through our land; there are Israeli-only roads all littered out through our land; there is an apartheid wall all littered out through our land. 

"And so it's very frustrating for any Israeli official to go back to what Oslo and the PA should be doing or shouldn't be doing or is responsible for doing."

On Tuesday, Abuznaid welcomed Bowman's letter. "Calling for people to be treated equally in Israel/Palestine, regardless of race/religion/class/etc. is not radical, it's the minimum. Thankful to Congressman Bowman for his ability to connect on this issue and speak truth to power," he wrote on Twitter.

Several Democratic legislators, including Rashida Tlaib, Marie Newman and Jaoquin Castro, have voiced concerns over Israel's vaccination campaign.

Mubarak said more members in Congress are starting to reject making an exception for Palestinians when calling for universal human rights. 

"What we are seeing here is the calls for freedom from the streets and the movement translate into the halls of Congress," she said.

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