Covid-19 can strike anywhere and anyone. We are all vulnerable, regardless of faith, nationality, ethnicity or culture. World leaders, politicians, royal families and philanthropists insist, as they always do in times of adversity, ad nauseam, that “we are all in this together”, but that isn’t true; you just have to look at what is unfolding in occupied Palestine to realise that we are not all equal in this latest test for humanity.
This was reinforced on British television yesterday when Israel’s Minister of Health, Yuli Edelstein, gloated over the apparent success of his government’s vaccination programme. When prodded gently by Andrew Marr on his BBC programme and asked why the Palestinians were not being included, Edelstein’s response was shameless.
With a fixed smirk — that well-known politician’s smile — the Israeli minister told Marr that Israel is not legally obliged to provide Covid-19 vaccine to the Palestinians. “As far as vaccination is concerned,” he said, “I think it is Israel’s obligation first and foremost to its citizens – they pay taxes for that, don’t they?” Edelstein’s casual callousness was breathtaking.
His attitude may well come back to haunt him because Covid-19 and its deadly variants are no respecters of military checkpoints and border crossings. It is in Israel’s interests to make sure that Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza Strip are vaccinated.
Moreover, as the occupying power, Israel does indeed have a legal obligation to provide healthcare to the people living under its brutal military occupation: the Palestinians. Under international law, occupying powers must take measures to restore and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety. The latter includes the provision of sufficient and public health facilities, as well as food and medical care to the population under occupation.
Any visitor to the region can tell you that this is not being done. The world turns a blind eye to the reality of Israel’s occupation and its effect on the indigenous people of Palestine. Western governments issue occasional bland criticism, but the Israelis know that they are able to act with impunity; aside from anything else, their state was created by the self-same governments as a colonial entity in the Middle East.
As confirmed by Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem a couple of weeks ago, Israel is an “apartheid state” and fulfils the legal requirements for such a damning indictment. Apartheid is a crime against humanity in its own right. The coronavirus pandemic has shone a light onto Israel’s apartheid nature.
To be fair, not all Israelis are comfortable with the healthcare double standards of their government. Two hundred rabbis signed a petition by Rabbis for Human Rights calling on Tel Aviv to distribute coronavirus vaccines to the Palestinian population in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, the former senior rabbi of Reform Judaism in Britain and a past chair of British Rabbis for Human Rights, said that the vaccination needs of the Palestinians “goes to the core of who we are as Jews”. Israel, she pointed out, also has a moral obligation to assist the Palestinians during the pandemic.
The settler-colonial state controls the borders, air space, territorial waters, economy and just about everything else related to the occupied Palestinian territories. It even collects taxes on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, so nobody should believe for one minute that either the PA or Hamas or any other faction has any meaningful control of their territories. If Israel wants to deploy troops, drones, fighter jets, attack helicopters or tanks it can and it does.
The Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have had to face three major military offensives over the past twelve years, and numerous military incursions; they are targeted ruthlessly and routinely by artillery fire and hellfire missiles. Israel has full control over the borders and what and who crosses them, including fuel and electricity.
Yuli Edelstein’s dismissal of the vaccine for Palestinians issue should have come as no surprise. Just last week, the occupation state opened the sluice gates on rainwater reservoirs near the nominal Gaza border and flooded Palestinian farmland, destroying crops. Also last week, Israeli occupation forces destroyed the Palestinian Bedouin village of Al-Araqib for the 182nd time in ten years. Compassion is not in the Israeli lexicon.
The 600,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in the occupied Palestinian territories do so subject to Israel’s civil legal system. Their Palestinian neighbours, meanwhile, live under military law. The settlers are being vaccinated, but the Palestinians under Israeli occupation aren’t, despite calls by Amnesty International for Israel to provide vaccine doses to those living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Israel, said Amnesty, should “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.”
Amnesty’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Saleh Higazi, insisted that, “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 [occupied Palestinian territories] without discrimination.”
Higazi’s words will not resonate with Israel’s smirking Health Minister, who told Marr that the 1993 Oslo Accords gives the PA sole responsibility for Palestinian healthcare. Marr should have challenged Edelstein more vigorously, but he works for the BBC which has lost any reputation for balance that it once had, allowing Israeli spokespeople and apologists to go largely unchallenged. Marr could have pointed out, for example, that Oslo rested on the understanding that a peace deal would be signed within five years, something that Israel has never intended should happen; almost three decades later the world and the Palestinians are still waiting for peace and justice.
The “peace process” has bought Israel time to steal more Palestinian land, using Oslo to muddy the waters of responsibility as it consolidates its apartheid against the indigenous population. The colonial state has imposed this in the face of a seemingly helpless UN.
The international body has to step in, not only by ensuring that vaccine is made available to the Palestinians, but also by holding Israel to account. Infection and death rates in the occupied territories are increasing. An already shattered health sector is being destroyed by the pandemic, and the Israeli-led siege on Gaza limits imports of essential medicines and medical supplies. In overcrowded refugee camps, social distancing is almost impossible, as is self-isolation. Without clean water, even basic hygiene isn’t possible.
The headlines praising Israel for its “world-beating” vaccination programme were misleading, and a cruel slap in the face for the Palestinians. The pandemic has indeed exposed Israeli apartheid at its most basic level. Under the same regime, the same state of Israel, Jewish settlers are treated well; indigenous Palestinians aren’t.
I tested positive for Covid-19 three days ago despite following government guidelines rigorously. This has brought it home to me that we are not “all in this together”, because I live in Scotland and so have a strong chance of pulling through this awful illness. If I lived in Ramallah, Jenin or Gaza City, though, I would not be so optimistic.
It is a disgrace that the health, security and well-being of five million Palestinians relies entirely on a colonial occupation which is imposed without mercy, compassion or humanity. Callous Israeli parliamentarians, such as Edelstein, should be ashamed of themselves, but their arrogance knows no bounds. Their apartheid regime is not only illegal, but also deadly; the rogue state of Israel should be held to account without delay.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.