The news that pharmaceutical companies have apparently succeeded in developing an effective vaccine against the coronavirus is encouraging, especially in light of the Israeli government’s success in signing deals to supply of millions of doses of the vaccine. But senior health officials erred in their calculations: They counted only the number of vaccine doses needed to immunize nine million Israeli citizens, and failed to include the number of doses needed to vaccinate five million Palestinians, residents of the West Bank and Gaza, living under Israeli control and responsibility.
The Palestinian authorities, as local authorities responsible for certain areas, are of course required to safeguard the health of the residents of Gaza and the West Bank. Their responsibility is similar to that of Tel Aviv municipality’s responsibility for the health of city residents, which it assumes by, for example, enforcing social distancing regulations. However the activities of local government, whose authority is limited, does not absolve the central government of its responsibilities.
The Palestinian Authority and Israeli municipalities are authorized to run such systems as health and education with the aid of money that the state of Israel earmarks for them from the tax revenue it collects, and from donations and taxes that these local authorities collect on their own, all subject to the overall authority of the state. At a time when the Palestinian authorities are unable to purchase the vaccines on their own, the state of Israel must do so – as part of its obligation to ensure equal rights to everyone living under its control, Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Israel, since its establishment, has pursued a policy of controlling land without accepting responsibility for the non-Jews living there. Back during the War of Independence the nascent state decided to seize as much territory as possible, but to prevent its Palestinian residents form returning once the fighting ended. After the Six-Day War the state established a campaign to settle and Judaize the territories it occupied and even annexed them, whether de facto or de jure, without recognizing the rights of their Palestinian inhabitants.
Although the international rules governing occupation hold the occupying state responsible for the health and welfare of the population living under the occupation, and despite the obligation under international human rights laws to honor the rights of everyone living under its rule – Israel promotes only the rights of Israelis, particularly Jews, including the 600,000 settlers. For 53 years Israel has claimed that the discriminatory treatment is only temporary, until the “final” status of the Gaza Strip and West Bank is determined. But this control has become permanently temporary.
As long as Israel controls Israel/Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, it must treat the 6.5 million Jews and 6.5 million Palestinians living there equally. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the Israeli government has shirked this responsibility. Back in March, when Foreign Ministry representatives were asked whether Israel will financially assist the Palestinian health system, they replied that “the Palestinian authorities must cope with the virus in their territory.”
This is not an acceptable position. Firstly, denying responsibility for the health of those who live in the territory is accompanied by an insistence that the West Bank belongs to the Jewish people and that parts of it will be officially annexed. You don’t have to be a licensed lawyer to understand the absurdity of a position by which territory belongs to the Jewish people when it comes to settlement, exploitation and annexation, but that when its non-Jewish residents are ill, the territory is Palestinian.
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Secondly, Israeli control prevents the Palestinian authorities from confronting the pandemic, because Israel very much restricts their jurisdiction. Since 1967 Israel has been in control of the borders of the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian population registry and the tax system. That means, for example, that Palestinian police in areas B and C, 80 percent of the West Bank, are not allowed to enforce restrictions on gatherings, or the requirement to wear a mask. In the Gaza Strip, years of closures and economic warfare have weakened the infrastructure, hurt the economy and stunted the healthcare system, preventing it from financing vaccinations.
Residents of Gaza and the West Bank need vaccines more than ever. Gaza reports about 800 new cases a day, and the percentage of people testing positive in the few tests that are carried out is close to 30 percent. The situation in the West Bank is similar. In Gaza the hospitals are filling up with coronavirus patients. Both authorities, Fatah and Hamas, have imposed nightly curfews, but the economic situation deters them from imposing further lockdowns. Palestinians receive no unemployment insurance or coronavirus grants. The Palestinian Authority is trying to buy vaccines but so far without any success.
Since his Bar-Ilan speech in 2009, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and its partners have succeeded in dispelling the illusion that there are or will be two states in the future, or that the Palestinian authorities control the West Bank or Gaza. The reality of one sovereign authority, under which local authorities operate – a reality that has existed now for many years – obligates that authority to grant equal economic, cultural, civil and political rights. The first, immediate step, must be to purchase millions more vaccines. Because the virus, contrary to the government of Israel, doesn’t discriminate between Jews and Palestinians.
The author is a human rights lawyer and a consultant to DAWN, Democracy for the Arab World Now.