The Covid Files
Conversations with Mustafa Barghouti and Gerald Rockenschaub
By David Kattenburg[Updated January 17]
The A-word seems apt. How better to describe Israel’s national Covid vaccination campaign?
Since December 20, Israeli health authorities have administered jabs of the Pfizer vaccine to an astonishing quarter of Israel’s ‘official’ population — almost two million doses — all the while reportedly denying the vaccine to the five million Palestinians living under military rule in the occupied/colonized West Bank and Gaza.
In ‘Area C’ of the West Bank, the 60 percent slice where Jewish settlers live, in “flagrant” breach of international law, settlers have been vaccinated while Palestinians have not.
The Sars-CoV-9 virus has hit Palestine/Israel hard. As of January 14, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports 169,388 cases in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza, and 1821 deaths. This corresponds to case and mortality rates of approximately 3.2% and 1% respectively. Israel, in contrast, has reported a total of 487,680 Covid cases and 3651 deaths since the start of the pandemic, out of that ‘population’ of nine million, for case and mortality rates of about 5.4 and 0.7% respectively.
Israel’s declared and commonly accepted population of nine million includes Israeli Jews living in both Israel ‘proper’ (within Israel’s lawful territory) and in its illegal West Bank settlements, plus the estimated 2.3 million Palestinians who are either citizens of Israel or hold Jerusalem residence cards.
Another five million Palestinians reside in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, most under nominal Palestinian administration but effective Israeli military rule, bringing the total population under Israeli governance or subjugation to fourteen million.
The Palestinian Authority’s reported preference has been to secure vaccines on its own — the Russian Sputnik V vaccine — while making supply arrangements through the World Health Organization’s Gavi-COVAX program.
Perversely, the PA’s ability to confront the Covid pandemic in areas under its nominal jurisdiction has been compromised by an estimated 8000 Covid infections among its health care workers. An informal request by the WHO that Israel include front line Palestinian workers in its vaccination campaign has been declined, the Independent reported today.
Palestinian physician Mustafa Barghouti confirms this in the interview below.
In response to criticism from international human rights groups, Israel and its lobbyists argue that, under the terms of the 1994-95 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for vaccinating Palestinians.
Indeed, Article 17, Annex III of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement on the West Bank and Gaza Strip (28 Sept., 1995; Oslo II) states that “Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of health in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side,” and that the Palestinians “shall continue to apply the present standards of vaccination of Palestinians.”
Article 17 also states, however, that “Israel and the Palestinian side shall exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, shall cooperate in combating them and shall develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents,” and that “The health systems of Israel and of the Palestinian side will maintain good working relations in all matters.”
Article 17 stipulates that “Imports of pharmaceutical products to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip shall be in accordance with general arrangements concerning imports and donations, as dealt with in Annex V (Protocol on Economic Relations).”
The Paris Protocol, as it’s called, has widely been seen as hobbling the Palestinian economy, in parallel with a host of other Oslo-era constraints on the Palestinian autonomy. Thwarting Palestine’s ability to emerge as a truly sovereign state was Israel’s aim from the start, historians of the post-Oslo era say.
Most crucially, under Oslo, the PA only exercises civil authority in forty percent of the occupied West Bank, in designated Areas A and B. The remaining sixty percent (including the Jordan Valley) was assigned full Israeli military and civil control. Here, an estimated 300,000 indigenous Palestinians live in the midst of a half million Jewish settler-colonists and their military protection forces. Settlers have the same citizenship and national rights as any Jewish person in Israel ‘proper’. Palestinians have no rights at all, and endure life under Israeli military rule. Jewish settlers get vaccinated. Palestinians don’t. Not yet, anyway.
Another 150,000 Palestinians live in East Jerusalem, where the PA has no authority. On several occasions, Israeli police have interfered with or blocked attempts by the PA to deliver health care and Covid protection in East Jerusalem. Israel’s advocates deny this. Israeli interference with Covid response measures has been reported here and here and here.
In any case, Israel cannot use Oslo arrangements to deny vaccines to Palestinians. Under the 4th Geneva Convention (1949), Israel is obliged to ensure that Palestinians are protected from the pandemic. ‘Protected people’ is how the Palestinians are described under the Convention.
Israel’s status as an occupying power in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), the Golan Heights and Gaza has been confirmed by the UN Security Council on numerous occasions, most recently in UNSC 2334 (Dec. 2016) — “Reaffirming the obligation of Israel, the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Fourth 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.”
Israel’s reluctance to include West Bank and Gaza Palestinians in its Covid vaccination is blatantly discriminatory, critics say. “Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme highlights the institutionalized discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians,” said Saleh Higazi, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International. “There could hardly be a better illustration of how Israeli lives are valued above Palestinian ones.”
AI’s comments mirror those published in a late January report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD). CERD described Israeli policies thus:
“[Policies] and practices that amount to segregation, such as the existence in the Occupied Palestinian Territory of two entirely separate legal systems and sets of institutions for Jewish communities in illegal settlements on the one hand and Palestinian populations living in Palestinian towns and villages on the other hand. The Committee is appalled at the hermetic character of the separation of the two groups, who live on the same territory but do not enjoy either equal use of roads and infrastructure or equal access to basic services, lands and water resources.”
Listen to a conversation with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti. Barghouti, currently ill with Covid, is a Palestinian physician, politician and activist. He helped found the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI) and ran for president in 2005. Barghouti has been a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Central Council, and served as Minister of Information in the Palestinian unity government in 2007.
For an equally informed but more diplomatic perspective, listen to my conversation with Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, the World Health Organization’s Head of Office in the Occupied Palestinian Territories: