As vaccination campaigns against COVID-19 expand and intensify worldwide, we are witnessing clear systemic discrimination and inequity around who receives life-saving vaccines and who does not. Such vaccine inequity is particularly disturbing in the Israeli/Palestinian context, where Israel, the occupying power, has ignored its responsibilities under international law to provide for the health of the population in the territory it occupies.
Although Israel has been praised for rapidly vaccinating a significant percentage of its citizens, it has failed to fulfill its legal and moral obligations to provide COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. By early March, Israel had fully vaccinated more than half of its citizens, including Israeli settlers illegally living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT). Meanwhile, Palestinians living under Israeli control are still, by and large, ineligible to receive these life-saving inoculations – a separate and unequal system that leaves them exposed to infection and death while Israeli citizens develop immunity, amid the worst global health crisis in a century.
Given the dangers of COVID-19, and the compounding restrictions imposed by Israel on the OPT, the result of this vaccine discrimination could be deadly. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of March 4, at least 216,802 Palestinians in the OPT had contracted COVID-19 and 2,314 had died. And the situation worsening: the West Bank witnessed a 61 percent increase in deaths in the first week of March compared to the previous week.
A group of UN human rights experts, calling for Israel to ensure equal access to COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians, voiced their concern about the potentially lethal impact of this vaccine discrimination: “The COVID-19 pandemic has been ravaging the West Bank and Gaza in recent months, and has fractured an already badly under-resourced Palestinian health care system. We are particularly concerned about the deteriorating health situation in Gaza, which suffers from a 13-year-old blockade, serious water and electricity shortages, and endemic poverty and unemployment.”
As the occupying power in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since 1967, Israel is required by the Fourth Geneva Convention to maintain public health services and to provide necessary medical supplies in the occupied territory “to the fullest extent of the means available to it.”
Article 56 of the Convention obligates the occupying power to ensure “the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
Israel’s legal responsibilities are also outlined in Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Israel ratified in 1991. The International Court of Justice has explicitly confirmed that Israel’s duties under this covenant apply to the population of the OPT.
While some Israeli officials attempt to argue that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is responsible for vaccinating its population under the terms of the 1993 Oslo Accords, the existence of the PA – and any alternative efforts it makes to obtain vaccines – does not absolve Israel of its legal obligations as the occupying power.
Israel cannot claim that it does not have the means to fulfill these requirements. According to recent reporting, Israel plans to send thousands of vaccines to countries that have supported its expansionist policies and opened embassies in Jerusalem, the eastern half of which Israel illegally annexed and remains occupied territory. If Israel can send vaccines abroad as a diplomatic tool, it is able to distribute them to Palestinians living under its occupation.
Meanwhile, Israel has allowed the entry of some doses of the Sputnik V vaccine, donated by Russia, to the OPT – a vaccine not approved for use within Israel, which has instead procured the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for its own population. The move runs counter to the Paris Protocol on Economic Relations and the long-standing policy of Israel’s own Ministry of Health to only allow the distribution of medicines in the OPT which have undergone the necessary scientific and regulatory procedures.
As of mid-March, a total of roughly 70,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine have been delivered to Palestinians in Gaza and 12,000 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority, primarily donated by the United Arab Emirates and Russia. Israel has sent only 2,000 vaccines from its own reserves to the PA, intended for Palestinian health care workers but covering only a fraction of their actual needs. Israel has now – after much delay – announced that it will vaccinate the roughly 120,000 Palestinians who work in Israel or in Israeli settlements but has consistently ignored its duty to the rest of the Palestinian population.
Although the WHO-led COVAX mechanism is scheduled to deliver 37,000 vaccines to the PA by March 17, and 168,000 AstraZeneca vaccines are supposed to be delivered by the end of May, deadlines have previously been repeatedly announced and no vaccines delivered.
As such, as of now, the vast majority of the adult Palestinian population is left vulnerable to infection.
In this pandemic, no one is protected until everyone is protected, and that includes the deeply intertwined Israeli and Palestinian populations. In December 2020, 31 Palestinian and Israeli human rights groups, led by Physicians for Human Rights Israel, called on Israel to provide necessary vaccines to Palestinian health care systems and demanded that it fulfill its obligations, including by:
- Publishing the quantity of vaccinations reserved for the Palestinian population and providing a specific timeline for their transfer.
- Providing full financial support to the Palestinian Authority where the PA is unable to fund vaccines and their distribution, without deducting these funds from the PA’s tax revenues held by Israel.
- Lifting the closure on the Gaza Strip to enable the proper functioning of its health system in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
With COVID-19 cases and deaths rising steadily in the OPT in recent weeks, Israel must fulfill its legal and moral obligations as quickly as possible to halt further preventable loss of life. Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and Physicians for Human Rights Israel (PHRI) call on Israel to ensure swift delivery, transfer, and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for all Palestinians living in the Occupied Palestinian Territory at the same levels available to Israeli citizens. PHR and PHRI also call on the international community to take immediate action to ensure that international human rights law is respected and these duties are fulfilled.