Photo: Amos Ben Gershom, Government Press Office (Israel)/Wikimedia Commons
A recent Lawyers Without Borders blogpost on UCL Reflect supports allegations of “vaccine apartheid” against Israel, claiming that Israel has a legal obligation to vaccinate Palestinian citizens in Gaza and the West Bank. At the time of writing this article, requests for the right of reply have all been ignored.
After the 1967 war, Israel was left in control of the West Bank and Gaza. Israeli disengagement from Gaza occurred in 2005, and subsequently it has fallen under the control of the Islamist group Hamas – an organisation that some, including the U.S. and the EU, define as a terrorist organisation. In 1993, the Oslo Accords were signed, transferring many civil responsibilities in the West Bank (including health) to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Although Jews and Arabs are afforded complete legal equality within Israel, the country is frequently libeled as an “apartheid” state.
In addition to being factually inaccurate, such claims are destructive and counterproductive. Claims that Israel is legally responsible for the medical welfare of Palestinian citizens in the West Bank and Gaza delegitimize the PA’s rule whilst forcing Israel on the defensive. In my opinion, this renders meaningful improvements much more difficult to achieve.
The UN, amongst others, claims that Israel has a legal responsibility to vaccinate Palestinian citizens under the Fourth Geneva Convention. Yet, previously the International Committee of Red Cross interpreted the Convention as absolving occupying powers from responsibilities of handling epidemics when the national authorities have the means of managing the population’s health requirements. As health responsibilities were completely transferred to the PA per the Oslo Accords (Article 17(2) expressly tasks the PA with vaccination distribution), and ample funds for the population’s medical needs were provided, Israel is not legally responsible for their vaccinations.
The PA has acted in accordance with these provisions. Initially, its officials never asked Israel for help, rejecting medical aid from the UAE only because it arrived via the Israeli airport. A PA Ministry of Health senior official expressly stated that they did not expect Israel to purchase vaccines on their behalf. Working in conjunction with the World Health Organisation, the PA has successfully purchased the AstraZeneca, Moderna, Sinopharm, and Sputnik vaccines without requesting any Israeli involvement. Arguably, it was only once anti-Israel critics successfully invented this “medical apartheid” falsehood did the PA release a statement outlining Israel’s supposed responsibilities.
Ignoring the terms of the Oslo Accords – regardless of the failures of subsequent peace agreements – only reduces the legitimacy of the PA’s authority, effectively arguing that it is unable to care for its population and should transfer civil responsibilities back to Israel.
Other arguments only make cooperation and assistance a more formidable task. The Israeli Supreme Court decision that gas masks must be provided to Palestinians and Israelis alike has been cited as alleged proof of Israel’s responsibility to vaccinate the Palestinian-administered territories. However, this 1991 decision preceded the Oslo Accords and the subsequent transfer of administrative powers to the PA, so it is legally inappropriate. Because Hamas exercises complete control over Gaza, and the PA over West Bank citizens’ health requirements, this argument is not applicable.
Critics cited the remarkable speed of Israel’s vaccination rollout as supposed proof that Israel can vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, but simply refuses to do so. Such claims overlook the reasons for Israel’s success, which largely boil down to its heavily centralised healthcare system. The argument that Israel could do the same in the West Bank presupposes a similar medical infrastructure. Unfortunately, this does not exist.
Israel has been blamed for the poor healthcare systems in Palestinian-administered territories, despite the exclusive Hamas and PA control of these areas for more than 20 years. Vast sums have been provided to both regimes, but unfortunately, they spend it on building secret tunnels to penetrate Israel’s security fence and salaries for those convicted of terrorism – the more heinous the crime, the greater the stipend. This leaves Israel in a dilemma. They have expressed willingness to help the Palestinian people, but they know the PA spends approximately $15 million per month on the salaries of terrorists languishing in prison.
Such allegations of “apartheid” only inflict further damage upon the wounded relationship between Palestinians and Israelis. Within the state of Israel, including East Jerusalem, vaccines are available to all citizens regardless of ethnic or religious background. When critics purposely overlook this and cry “medical apartheid,” Israelis (Jews and Arabs alike) are forced to defend their country, creating more bad will. Furthermore, despite the absence of legal obligations, Israel has provided ample medical help to the West Bank and Gaza, supplying medical equipment, providing training to medical staff, vaccinating Palestinian workers, and providing 5,000 vaccines to the PA to date.
As nations across the world struggle to access vaccines, it is the responsibility of others to help them. However, every government has a duty to protect its citizens before providing aid elsewhere. Israel must not be held to a higher standard than others are.
Although Israel has no legal obligation to aid the Palestinians, it can be argued that they have a moral one. Israeli Health minister Yuli Edelstien said Israel would “definitely consider” vaccinating Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza once Israelis were vaccinated. Whilst Israel has subsequently funded numerous aid missions for Palestinians (as stated above), this conversation is significantly more difficult now that the international media has intervened, demonising Israel with fabrications.
With every media intervention and their “soundbite” headlines, the gap between Palestinians and Israelis gradually widens, slowly chipping away at any hopes for peace. As I have written previously, peace can only be achieved when we learn to hold a conversation with the “other.” Falsely labeling Israel “apartheid” makes this impossible. Israel is forced to repeatedly disprove this libel whilst Palestinian legitimacy is continuously weakened by those who purport to defend them. Until falsehoods are abandoned for legitimate critiques, conversations remain difficult to foster and peace is but an elusive dream.
A slightly different version of this article was originally published in Pi Media.
Contributed by 2020-2021 University College London CAMERA Fellow Tamar Klajman.