Israel must provide COVID vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza

Editor’s Note: The following statement was issued on on February 19, 2021 by the Jewish Voice for Peace Health Advisory Council. Mondoweiss occasionally publishes press releases and statements from organizations in an effort to draw attention to overlooked issues.

Israel Must Assume its Legal and Moral Obligation to Provide COVID-19 Vaccines to the Palestinian Population in the West Bank and Gaza

Statement by the Jewish Voice for Peace Health Advisory Council

The Jewish Voice for Peace Health Advisory Council (JVP HAC) issues this statement of urgent concern for the health of the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza during the COVID-19 pandemic. Israel holds a legal and moral obligation to assure full and equitable COVID vaccine distribution to the Palestinian health authorities in the West Bank and Gaza to enable vaccine administration to begin immediately. 

As health workers we understand that there must be equitable vaccine distribution to all nations and people of the world in order to stop this lethal pandemic, which recognizes no borders. However, as Israel has rolled out a robust vaccination campaign for citizens of Israel, so far they have only made about 5000 doses of vaccine available in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. There is no justification for politics to create obstacles to vaccine availability. 

Israel’s refusal to assume responsibility to provide COVID vaccine to the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) of the West Bank and Gaza shows blatant disregard for the obligations they hold, as an occupying power, as spelled out in Article 56 of the 4th Geneva Convention

“To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities, the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics. Medical personnel of all categories shall be allowed to carry out their duties.” 

The Israeli Government’s disregard for international law is further compounded by a lack of moral concern. This week, Feb. 14-16, Israeli authorities blocked for two days the shipment of 2000 doses of the Russian Sputnik- COVID vaccine to Gaza, intended for health personnel in Gaza working in acute care settings. Some Israeli officials even discussed bargaining vaccines for prisoner exchanges. Access to health supplies must be seen as a human right, not used as bargaining chips by those in power.  

As health workers and American taxpayers, we are extremely distressed that our nation fails to hold Israel to any level of accountability for a health system that systemically discriminates against Palestinians. Our government provides Israel $3.8 billion annually for military aid while turning a blind eye to egregious and ongoing violations of Palestinian human rights. The COVID-19 pandemic shines light on a system that should be unacceptable to any of us, a system where protection from a deadly pandemic is provided to Israelis and denied to Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

As of February 14, 44% of Israeli citizens had received at least one dose of COVID vaccine. In fact, Israel has the highest rate of vaccination among its citizens of any nation in the world. The Israeli “success story” highlights the reality of a system of medical apartheid. Israeli citizens, including Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, benefit from a system of medical and health privilege, while the highly vulnerable Palestinian population suffers without adequate care. To quote Saleh Higazi, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International

“While Israel celebrates a record-setting vaccination drive, millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will receive no vaccine or have to wait much longer – there could hardly be a better illustration of how Israeli lives are valued above Palestinian ones.”

According to data from the World Health Organization (on 2/17/21) there have been 192,791 cases of COVID-19 in the OPT and 2,147 Palestinians have died from the virus. As health experts from the United Nations underscore, COVID-19 compounds the terribly stressed, under-resourced, and fragile Palestinian health care system. Israeli military occupation of over one half a century, ongoing military assaults by Israel, and the brutal blockade of Gaza since 2007 are the underlying causes of the severe health care deficits in Palestine. From the start of the pandemic, Israel has denied Palestinian health workers access to COVID tests, life-saving supplies such as ventilators and medications, and personal protective equipment. The ongoing occupation continues to cripple the Palestinian economy, divert and deny resources such as water and electricity, and deepen the dependence on foreign aid for basics such as food and infrastructure supplies. 

As health workers, it would be a violation of our professional ethics to stand by in silence as this form of discrimination occurs. We demand that Israel assume its full responsibility as an occupying power and abide by international humanitarian law. We call on the Israeli Government to: 

  • Promptly assure that COVID-19 vaccine is distributed to health authorities in the Occupied Palestinian Territories at a level adequate for the entire Palestinian population. Provide full financial resources and technical support to the Palestinian health system to assure vaccine stability and equitable distribution, and to lay the basis for building a more adequate and effective health care system. 
  • Lift the siege on Gaza, which is responsible for overwhelming the Gaza health care system and the well-being of an entire population of 2 million people.
  • We call on our elected officials to publicly state that Israel’s failure to provide COVID vaccine to the Palestinians is not acceptable. The United States Congress has a great deal of leverage on Israeli policy given the level of financial support, military aid, and political coverage provided to that government. We urge our Members of Congress to pressure Israel to reverse its highly discriminatory vaccine policy that excludes Palestinians from this urgent health protection. 

The JVP Health Advisory Council endorses the 12/22/20 statement published by Al Mezan Center for Human Rights and nine other Israeli and Palestinian health and human rights groups that call on Israel to provide full equity in vaccine access and to assume the larger duty of assuring the full health and human rights of the Palestinian population. 

Sincerely,

Jewish Voice for Peace Health Advisory Council Steering Committee

Alan Meyers, MD, MPH 
Alice Rothchild, MD
Amy Alpert, CCC-SLP
Maxine Fookson, RN, MN
Peter Sporn, MD
Rachel Rubin, MD, MPH
S. Komarovsky, MPH
Sima Kahn, MD
Trude Bennett, MSW, DrPH

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