As of 14 February 2021, Israel had administered 73 COVID-19 vaccination doses per 100 people and seems to be leading the global race against the Coronavirus pandemic. This is in part because the Health Ministry of Israel struck a deal almost immediately after pharmaceutical company Pfizer-BioNTech released the vaccine in early December. Ahead of the national election in March 2021, this seems like a politically beneficial national success story for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. However, Israel’s use of the vaccine disguises a profound tragedy: the five million Palestinians under Israel’s occupation have been wholly excluded from access to inoculation. Thus, in reality, Israel has fallen short of Netanyahu’s claim to be a “global model state”.
Israel’s handling of the vaccine must be contextualised within the historical and ongoing disputes between Israel and Palestine. First, occupying the main Palestinian strongholds of West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and Gaza in 1967, Israel’s power in these regions has waned in recent years. Its military withdrew in 2005 and since 2007, the area has been controlled by the more militant arm of Palestinians known as Hamas. Nevertheless, Israel continues to control the movement of trade and goods into the region. The Gaza-Israel border has been increasingly contentious in recent months and the border conflict was reinvigorated in the summer of 2020 when Hamas and the Israeli military were at loggerheads due to their respective use of rockets and airstrikes against each other. In September 2020, however, both sides concluded that a ceasefire was the most appropriate way forward particularly with the worsening effects of the pandemic.
The border issue has been further exacerbated by violations of certain individuals and their bodies. Since 2015, Israel has held the bodies of 67 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. The most recent Palestinian body held is that of Ahmed Erekat who was killed by Israeli forces after it was reported that he had crashed a car and killed an Israeli officer. Despite numerous calls for the release of Erekat’s body, Israel continues to defend itself. In a 2019 Supreme Court decision, Israel legitimised its actions by legally authorising the holding of individuals associated with Hamas or those who have attacked Israelis directly. Under such a precedent, Israelis are holding bodies as bargaining chips against the Palestinians.
Now, the vaccine is yet another source of bodily violations against Palestinians. The vaccine is made to protect lives yet, by excluding Palestinians from accessing it, the right to health and life is being further undermined. In effect, the vaccine has been noted as a striking mechanism for “collective punishment”. Israel’s present use of the vaccine, therefore, fuels a new dimension to an intense historic and political climate.
The Israeli Government’s Defence Ministry (The Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories) has used contractual precedents to justify the medical exclusion of Palestinians. Citing the Oslo Accords to which Israeli and Palestinian authorities agreed in 1993 and 1995, Israel has suggested that the Palestinian National Authority has "self-determination" over such issues. In effect, they claim that Israel is not responsible for the medical oversight of Palestinians. This is a weak and contradictory justification - Israel cannot simply assert the Palestinian right to “self-determination” in its international status as an occupying power.
The definition of an occupying power is clearly stated in Article 56 entitled “Hygiene and Public Health” in the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949. This power has a “duty of ensuring and maintaining…the adoption and application” of measures “necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. However, recent events have revealed Israel falling short of its duties as an occupying power. Israel’s deputy health minister, Yoav Kisch stated that they would start offering “surplus” vaccine doses to 5,000 Palestine frontline health workers in the coming weeks. While it may seem like a benevolent offer, this announcement simply confirms that Israel has not adequately “ensured and maintained” medical assistance in Palestine, as the Convention explicitly requires. Not only are there nowhere near enough vaccines for the whole medical workforce, but expressing the supply of the vaccine as a “surplus” reduces all Palestinians to second-class citizens; there are over four million Palestinians suffering in the West Bank and Gaza and Israel has made no present vaccination arrangements for these residents. Thus, the lack of provisions for Palestinians marks a striking attack on the Geneva Convention.
Additionally, the term “self-determination” places power in the hands of the Palestinian National Authority to choose what they feel is the best solution to the virus. Far from granting more autonomy, however, the Israeli government is using vaccine access as a bargaining chip against the Palestinians; they know that Palestine is less wealthy and that the authorities therefore simply do not have the resources to strike a deal with Pfizer. Although some arrangements have been made, notably the World Health Organisation’s COVAX scheme which provides free vaccines for 20 percent of a population, it is not clear when these vaccine programmes will be delivered to Palestine, let alone their efficacy. Thus, the terms of “self-determination” have been asserted as a political smokescreen by the Israeli ministry, knowing that the Palestinian population will suffer in the long run.
By withholding the COVID-19 vaccine from its occupied territory of Palestine, Israel’s vaccine rollout has a major shortfall. This decision comes part and parcel with the longer historical dispute between the two states. This context clarifies the Israeli Ministry’s use of the vaccine as a bargaining chip to gain leverage over the Palestinians. By contravening international human rights law, this case highlights the stark reality of vaccine distribution.