Palestinian-Americans struggle to get vaccinated, say U.S. government abandoned them

When Wafaa Jallaq and her group of friends went to the Qalandiya checkpoint between the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem on February 23rd, the group had high hopes that after nearly one year of the pandemic, they would finally be getting the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Jallaq, a 26-year-old Palestinian-American from Ohio, arrived at Qalandiya checkpoint with several other Palestinian-Americans and Palestinians with other dual nationalities on the morning of February 23rd. 

After passing through the first barrier of the military checkpoint, passing armed Israeli soldiers and metal detectors, the group were ushered into an area within the premises that, as Jallaq described, had been turned into a “makeshift clinic” for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.

The group had heard about the “vaccination day” that Israel was holding at the checkpoint through a social media group of Palestinian-Americans living in Ramallah. A mass text about the event advised members of the group to go to the checkpoint and “try their luck” with the vaccination program, which was reportedly being run by Israel’s national emergency service, Magen David Adom (MDA). 

The first vaccination day was held on February 9th, and proved to be a successful journey for a number of Palestinian-Americans and foreign passport holders living in Ramallah and other parts of the West Bank, who received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine from Israeli medics at the checkpoint. 

“I have friends who went and showed their U.S. passports and said that they were there for the vaccination and it didn’t even take them 10 minutes to get the shot and leave,” Jallaq told Mondoweiss. 

Wafaa Jallaq

So, with that in mind, Jallaq went to the Qalandiya checkpoint two weeks later on the 23rd, optimistic that she would be done in no time, and newly vaccinated. 

But when she arrived into the area within the checkpoint designated for vaccinations, Jallaq described the scene as “very hectic”, saying  “there were a lot of people and lots of confusion.”

“After we got through the second checkpoint, we were told by someone passing by that if you had a Palestinian West Bank ID, you could not get the vaccine.”

Amid the commotion, Jallaq says she and her friends were told by other people who were turned back that “they won’t register you if you have the Palestinian ID with an American passport.

“They said we could only get the vaccine if we had an Israeli ID with an American passport,” Jallaq said. 

Confused and unable to get clear answers from any representatives in charge of the program, Jallaq and her friends decided that they would leave and come back later that evening, to try their luck again when there was hopefully less of a commotion. 

“I got to the second checkpoint and said ‘I want to take the COVID-19 vaccination as a US citizen living here’, and the [Israeli] soldier asked me if I have a Palestinian ID or Israeli ID,” Jallaq recounted to Mondoweiss. 

According to Jallaq, when she told the soldier she had a Palestinian ID, the soldier asked her if that meant she didn’t have any sort of Israeli-issued visa in her passport — something given to US and other foreign citizens with no Palestinian or Israeli citizenship upon their arrival into the country. 

“He then said that vaccinations were only being given to Israeli ID holders, or those who have Israeli visas in their American passports,” Jallaq said. 

Loureen Sayej, a Palestinian-American woman who was also present at the checkpoint on February 23rd, posted a video on Twitter of the commotion at the checkpoint. 

Sayej said that she was told by an Israeli soldier that American passport holders were eligible for the vaccine, but that holders of American passports and Palestinian ID cards were not. 

“A glimpse of the humiliation,” Sayej said. 

No help from the U.S. government

While Jallaq and Sayej were allegedly told that any American passport holders could receive the vaccine at the checkpoint, so long as they did not carry any form of Palestinian ID, other individuals who attempted to get vaccinated on that same day told Mondoweiss that they were turned back, even with American passports. 

Sources told Mondoweiss that once they arrived at the check-in desk and presented their American passports, they were pulled out of line and told they weren’t eligible to be vaccinated. 

When they asked why other Americans, including those with Palestinian ID cards, were able to get vaccinated two weeks prior, they were told by clinic staff that what happened on February 9th was “a mistake,” and that only Palestinians with Israeli-issued Jerusalem ID cards were eligible to get vaccinated at the checkpoint moving forward. 

A staff member went on to say that any foreign passport holders residing in the West Bank seeking to get vaccinated should “coordinate with their embassy, who will set up a day for vaccinations for you in the West Bank.”

Jallaq said that she was told something similar after her second failed attempt to get the vaccine on the 23rd. 

“They said ‘call your embassy and they’ll figure it out for you’,” Jallaq told Mondoweiss. But when she called the emergency services line at the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, her calls were never answered. 

In response to a request for comment made by Mondoweiss, a U.S. Embassy representative from the Palestinian Affairs Unit said that while the U.S. Department of State “has no greater responsibility than the safety and security of US citizens overseas,” the U.S. government “does not plan to provide COVID-19 vaccinations to private U.S. citizens overseas.”

“At the same time, we believe it’s important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccines in the weeks ahead. Whether it is in the context of the Palestinian territories, whether it is in the context of countries that may have access to the vaccine through the COVAX facility, which, of course, the United States pledged $2 billion immediately, $4 billion over time,” the statement continued. 

“This is something that we are working to see happen, and so we certainly welcome when more people have access to a safe and effective vaccine,” the representative said, adding that in the end, U.S. citizens residing overseas “should follow host country developments and guidelines for COVID-19 vaccination.”

Who gets vaccinated, who doesn’t

Though the embassy representative claimed that the U.S. government was not responsible for ensuring the vaccination of its citizens abroad, U.S. government officials have benefited from Israel’s highly-praised vaccination roll-out, through vaccination programs offered by the Israeli Ministry of Health to foreign diplomats residing in the country. 

Other foreign diplomats living and residing in the West Bank, but who can travel into to Israel and Jerusalem — something that Palestinian-Americans with West Bank IDs need an Israeli-issued permit to do — have also been able to get vaccinated at Israeli clinics in Jerusalem and inside other Israeli cities. 

Additionally, tens of thousands of dual Israeli-American citizens have been vaccinated by Israel, where more than half of the country’s population has now been inoculated. 

For Jallaq, the response of the U.S. government towards its Palestinian citizens and their struggles with getting vaccinated showed her that her government “doesn’t care” about her, or the tens of thousands of other Palestinian-Americans living in the West Bank. 

“In general, having a foreign passport in an occupied land is a privilege,” Jallaq admitted to Mondoweiss. “But as a Palestinian dual citizen, you see that the [Israeli] occupation does not care about you or uphold the international standards regarding public health.”

“It’s frustrating that the U.S. is playing along with it,” Jallaq said. “There shouldn’t be a differentiation between an American with a Palestinian ID or Israeli ID — the main point should be that were both American.”

Jallaq said that she disagreed with the U.S. government’s stance on the issue, saying that while it’s logical to direct citizens residing overseas to follow the guidelines of their host country, it’s a totally different ball game in Israel and Palestine. 

“It would be different if all U.S. citizens here were being treated the same,” she said. “But when Israel, or being Israeli, is basically the distinction between who gets vaccinated and who doesn’t, that’s when it becomes frustrating.”

“The U.S. has let go of its responsibility towards its citizens in the West Bank,” Jallaq said, adding that the U.S. has a responsibility to “remedy the situation.”

What the occupation allows

The struggle of Jallaq and her friends to get vaccinated at the Qalandiya checkpoint is indicative of the larger struggle amongst Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are experiencing when it comes to the COVID-19 vaccine. 

While Israel has surged ahead as the world leader in inoculating its population, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has struggled to get its vaccination program off the ground, with only a reported 12,000 vaccines arriving in the West Bank to date. 

PA officials have attributed the delay to problems with “manufacturing companies, the global competition market and shipping procedures.”

While the PA has said that it will fulfill its promise to vaccinate its citizens, Israeli officials have come under heavy fire for failing to ensure the vaccination of the 5 million Palestinians living under its military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Israel argues that the Oslo Accords, which established the PA and transferred some control over civilian affairs to the Palestinian government, absolve the country of its duty to vaccinate the Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. 

Palestinian, Israeli, and international human rights groups have emphasized, however, that under the Fourth Geneva convention Israel is obligated as the occupying power to coordinate with local authorities to maintain and preserve public health in the territory it occupies.

And while Israel has begun easing many of its COVID-19 lockdown restrictions across the country, rising coronavirus cases in the West Bank forced Palestinians in the territory to undergo the strictest lockdown since the pandemic first started in March last year. 

As thousands of new cases are being reported every day, death rates are being reported, staying consistently in the double digits, and hospitals across the West Bank are reaching full capacity, millions of Palestinians are left waiting without any idea of when they might get vaccinated. 

“This experience has been frustrating because I’ve gotten a glimpse into how Palestinians here are feeling all the time,” Jallaq said. “There are no options for them.”

“For them it’s always simply ‘what is the occupation going to allow?’”

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