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Israel must be sanctioned for refusing Covid-19 vaccinations to Palestinians

Israel's coronavirus vaccine policy puts it in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and should lead to sanctions
An Israeli military medic prepares to administer the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on 28 December (AFP)

Israel has long since moved on from the argument that its expansion into the West Bank beyond its 1967 borders is an act of self defence, so often heard during the construction of the wall.

Israel's annexation, which culminated last year in declared plans to annex up to 60 percent of the West Bank, is framed today as the fulfilment of a biblical prophecy, that Jews expelled from the land of Israel are destined to return to it. This fundamentalism is propagated in myriad ways far beyond the settler community and the national religious right. 

Annexation and sovereignty

From the phrase "Next year in Jerusalem" sung at the end of the Passover Seder, to the archeological attempts to establish the identity of ancient stones around the Old City of Jerusalem, to the use of the biblical words Judea and Samaria to describe the West Bank, the plan to construct a state whose recognised borders will one day extend from the river to the sea is, more than ever before, a collective one.

The plan to construct a state whose recognised borders will one day extend from the river to the sea is, more than ever before, a collective one

According to this logic, land that the international community recognises as occupied should instead be called disputed. Only a fraction of Palestinian refugees expelled from this land turn out to be real refugees.

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Annexation is nothing more than an extension of sovereignty.

Words used on the fringes of politics in one decade become mainstream in the next. Liberal Zionists reacted in horror at the appointment of Tzipi Hotovely as Israel's latest UK ambassador. The former settlements minister said, among other things: "This land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologise for that." But Hotovely on the extreme right is only saying out loud what many, secular as well as religious, now believe to be a fact on the ground.

There is not a figure on the left from the late Amos Oz downwards who would challenge the Law of Return which feeds this push eastwards, or see it as anything other than an act of Hebrew renewal. No form of liberal binationalism could work, Oz said, "except in six places: Switzerland, Switzerland, Switzerland, Switzerland, Switzerland, and... Switzerland".

But fundamentalist beliefs about Israel's destiny are not as universally applied as they at first appear.

Politics of Covid-19

There are times when it suits the Israeli ministers to drop any talk of extending sovereignty over the Palestinians. In fact they do the opposite by withdrawing it. Now is one of them.

The Israeli Ministry of Health has apparently no plans and no responsibility for vaccinating the Palestinians who are under occupation, or in their prisons. Covid does in fact distinguish between Palestinians and Israelis. As of 9 January, there were 165,000 active cases in Palestine and East Jerusalem and 1,735 deaths, the PLO said. 

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Mustafa Barghouti, a doctor who serves on the Palestinian health committee on Covid-19, and a former minister wrote: "More than 1,800 new cases are registered every day. The rate of infection in the two areas is 30 percent among those who are tested, in comparison with 7.4 percent in Israel."

Having become the first country in the world to vaccinate 20 percent of its population with the first of a two-dose jab, a rate 10 times that of the UK and US, Israel is establishing itself as a world leader. But that haste stops dead at the wall when it comes to the Palestinians under its control.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said that the Israeli health ministry had dismissed a request made in "informal discussions" to vaccinate Palestinian frontline healthcare workers. "The Israeli Ministry of Health indicated they would explore this option, but were currently not in a position to supply vaccines because of a shortage of vaccines in Israel," said WHO official Gerald Rockenschaub, who serves as the international body's envoy to the Palestinians.

Israel's public security minister also initially decided against vaccinating Palestinian prisoners who are held in crowded conditions with little or no protection against the virus. There are 4,400 Palestinians in Israeli prison, kept in overcrowded cells, with poor hygiene, humidity and lack of fresh air.

sraeli soldiers stand at attention as Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest against the annexation of the Jordan Valley, in the village of Tammun (AFP)
Israeli soldiers stand at attention as Palestinian demonstrators take part in a protest against the annexation of the Jordan Valley, in the village of Tammun (AFP)

Conditions where it is impossible to practice social distancing, wash hands, wear protective gear, or disinfect cells. "This has left Palestinian prisoners extremely vulnerable. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, 189 prisoners have tested positive. Prisoners infected with the virus have reported deplorable treatment, isolation, one pain killer, and one lemon," the PLO report said.

On Thursday , under pressure from Israeli President Reuvin Rivlin, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein relented, telling NPR that Palestinian prisoners would receive the vaccine next week. Rivlin told him that depriving the prisoners of vaccine violated the values of a democracy.

'Our neighbours'

However, the same responsibility of the State of Israel  does not appear to apply to Palestinians in areas it occupies.  Edelstein calls them instead "neighbours" who should really learn to take care of themselves.

The use of the word 'neighbour' by the Israeli health minister to describe Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and in Jerusalem is a legal nonsense

Edelstein, told Sky News on Monday: "I think that we've been helping our Palestinian neighbours from the very early stages of this crisis, including medical equipment, including medicine, including advice, including supplies.

"I don't think that there's anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would be taking a vaccine from the Israeli citizen and, with all the goodwill, give it to our neighbours."

The use of the word "neighbour" to describe Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and in Jerusalem is a legal nonsense. To establish this, I turned to Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC, one of the UK's legal experts on human rights. Bindman has examined the international legal implications of Israel's responsibility to provide Palestinians under its occupation with the Covid-19 vaccine.

He said they were obliged to do so under Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that Israel as an occupying power must ensure "the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics".

He told MEE: "Israel has obligations on two levels: Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention places obligations on the Israeli government as an occupying power. Medical ethics require all members of its medical community not to discriminate between those whom they serve and to look after all patients to the best of their ability."

Bindman disputed the Israeli minister of health’s designation of the Palestinians under his charge as "neighbours". 

"They are not neighbours. They are people under occupation and that means Israel is under the obligations in the Fourth Geneva Convention to make sure they are properly looked after. Israel has violated the Geneva Convention in all sorts of ways."


The Palestinian Authority, as ever, is compromised, torn between its desire to highlight Israel's responsibilities and its arrant failure to carry out its own. Deadlines for the vaccine's arrival have come and gone, but the vaccine itself has yet to materialise. The Palestinian minister of health, Mai al-Kaila, announced her ministry had approved the Russian vaccine Sputnik V for emergency use in Palestine, and it will be distributed "as soon as it arrives" to health workers, the sick and elderly. 

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And the MOH has already received a formal letter from AstraZenica that vaccines will arrive by "between the middle and end" of February. Vague statements, but no plan yet for a mass inoculation programme. The MOH says it is working with the WHO and private companies to secure as many vaccines as they can, but the gap between words and action has never been more apparent.

With the indifference of the international community, this is set to continue. Palestinian members of the Knesset have appealed to Michael Lynk, special rapporteur of the United Nations about Israel's responsibility to distribute vaccines in the area which the UN designates as Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).

"Specifically, the Israeli government should publish the number of doses reserved for Palestinians in the OPT, provide a specific timeline for their transfer, ensure that vaccines allocated to Palestinian populations are of the same quality as those distributed to Israeli citizens, facilitate entry of vaccines and medical devices to the OPT, and lift the blockade of the Gaza Strip in order to ensure that the Palestinian healthcare system can function properly," Dr Yousef Jabareen, the head of the Joint List's international relations committee wrote to Lynk.

The international community has not only accepted Israel's immunity for international law, but become complicit in it. The third agency for delivering health aid to Palestinians is UNWRA, whose funding has been depleted under Donald US President Trump but also under his Arab allies.

The UAE's aid for UNWRA, $52 m in 2018 was slashed to $1m in 2020. Saudi Arabia also cut its funding by $20m between 2018 and 2020

Bindman lamented the lack of enforcement of international law and suggested the right response for the international community was sanctions from members countries of the United Nations. "Enforcement of international law is extremely weak because it depends on the willingness of nations who are in breach to correct their wrong doing."

Asked whether the Covid saga bolstered the case for sanctions against Israel, Bindman replied: "Absolutely, yes."

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye. He is a commentator and speaker on the region and analyst on Saudi Arabia. He was the Guardian's foreign leader writer, and was correspondent in Russia, Europe, and Belfast. He joined the Guardian from The Scotsman, where he was education correspondent.
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