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Denying COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians exposes Israel’s institutionalized discrimination

The Israeli government must stop ignoring its international obligations as an occupying power and immediately act to ensure that COVID-19 vaccines are equally and fairly provided to Palestinians living under its occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, said Amnesty International today.

On 23 December, the Israeli Health Ministry began the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. Having already given initial jabs to more than a 10th of its population, Israel has been hailed as the country that has to date achieved the widest vaccination coverage in proportion to its population size. However, the COVID-19 vaccine roll-out plan so far covers only citizens of Israel, including Israeli settlers living inside the West Bank, and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. It excludes the nearly 5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, under Israeli military occupation.

Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme highlights the institutionalized discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians.

Saleh Higazi

“Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme highlights the institutionalized discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians. 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,” said Saleh Higazi, Deputy Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“Israeli authorities must ensure that vaccines are equally provided to the Palestinians living under their control, in order to meet their obligations under international law. They must also ensure smooth entry of vaccines and other medical equipment to the OPT, including making any necessary logistical arrangements to ensure the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines.”

The Israeli Ministry of Health has not yet publicly formulated an allocation policy that includes reserving specific amounts of doses for Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT), nor has it established a timeline for the disbursement of these vaccines to Palestinian health authorities.

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.

Saleh Higazi

Over half a century of occupation and enforcement of a system of institutionalized discrimination in the OPT, including East Jerusalem, Israel has deprived Palestinians of their basic rights and committed mass human rights violations. Israel must end its discriminatory policies and remove any barriers that may hinder Palestinians from accessing or enjoying health care.

Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law include the duty of ensuring and maintaining “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”, as per Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.

As of 3 January 2021, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 159,034 Palestinians in the OPT, including East Jerusalem, have so far tested positive for coronavirus since the first confirmed case was reported in March 2020. There have been nearly 1,600 deaths related to COVID-19 among Palestinians in the OPT since the beginning of the pandemic.

Israeli authorities must ensure that vaccines are equally provided to the Palestinians living under their control, in order to meet their obligations under international law.

Saleh Higazi

As the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and de facto Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip cannot independently fund vaccines and their distribution among the Palestinian population, they depend on global co-operation mechanisms such as COVAX, which still has not begun distributing vaccines. Israel must provide full financial support to ensure that the vaccine is promptly distributed to the Palestinian population without discrimination. Israel must also lift the blockade on the Gaza Strip to enable the proper functioning of its health system in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gaza’s health care system – subjected to half a century of occupation and more than a decade of blockade – is already unable to meet the needs of its population. The COVID-19 pandemic and lack of fair access to vaccines have only magnified the discrimination and inequality faced by the Palestinian population.

“The Israeli government must uphold its obligations as the occupying power, under international humanitarian law and human rights law, to provide the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health to the population of the OPT without discrimination,” said Saleh Higazi.

“The views of marginalized groups must be at the forefront of any decision-making to ensure that national vaccine policies aren’t exclusionary or discriminatory. All states must confront existing inequalities to ensure everyone has access to vaccines.” 

On 22 December, 10 human rights and health organizations issued a statement calling on Israel to ensure that its vaccination campaign includes Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

The Israeli government must uphold its obligations as the occupying power, under international humanitarian law and human rights law, to provide the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health to the population of the OPT without discrimination.

Saleh Higazi

In early December, Israel reached an agreement with Pfizer pharmaceutical company to supply 8 million doses of its newly approved COVID-19 vaccine – enough to cover almost half of Israel’s population of nearly 9 million since each person requires two doses. Israel also reached a separate agreement with Moderna to buy 6 million doses of its vaccine – enough for another 3 million Israelis.

As the race to distribute COVID-19 vaccines gathers pace, Amnesty International calls on states and companies to ensure that no one is denied access to health care, including vaccines, because of where they live, who they are or what they earn.

Background

There are approximately 600,000 Israeli settlers residing in 256 settlements and outposts scattered across the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Israeli settlements are illegal under international law.

On 3 January 2021, the Israeli Health Ministry said that 435,866 people in Israel had so far tested positive for the coronavirus since the first confirmed case was reported in February 2020. Almost 3,400 people have died in Israel, it said.

Reports indicate that the first batch of 313,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses arrived in Israel in early December 2020, and the country was expected to receive 3.8 million additional doses by the end of December 2020.

The Palestinian authorities have nominal and limited jurisdiction over parts of the occupied West Bank in accordance with interim peace agreements reached with Israel in the 1990s. Israel captured the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip following the 1967 war.

The Palestinian authorities hope to obtain vaccines for Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip through a WHO-led partnership with humanitarian organizations known as COVAX, which aims to provide vaccines to up to 20% of the population of all participating countries, many of which have been hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.