WASHINGTON – Concerns about inadequate Israeli distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations for Palestinians are beginning to emerge within the Democratic Party. These range from freshman progressive lawmakers on Twitter to some of the most respected lawmakers commenting during cabinet-level confirmation hearings.
Infection rates in Israel are decreasing amid a third national lockdown and one of the world’s most ambitious vaccination campaigns. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, meanwhile, are expecting a several-month waiting period before vaccines are widely distributed, though infection rates are relatively low.
As of Saturday, Israel had 82,002 active cases and 4,263 fatalities from the virus. In the West Bank, there were 4,779 active cases and 1,428 deaths, while Gaza had 5,603 active cases and 497 deaths.
Israel’s vaccination campaign, which has included settlements in the West Bank, has excluded Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. While the Palestinian Authority is responsible for health care in territories under its control per the Oslo Accords, critics say Israel has a responsibility to provide vaccines.
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro told Haaretz that he’s “disappointed and concerned” by developments. “I commend Israel for leading the world on vaccinating its people, but I’m disappointed and concerned by their government’s exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making COVID vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank,” said the Texas congressman, who recently unsuccessfully ran for the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s chairmanship.
“Israel’s government has a responsibility under international law not just to Israeli citizens but also Palestinians in the occupied territories. This is a stark reminder of the importance of achieving a two-state solution that respects the rights of the Palestinian people and the security of Israel,” he said.
Castro has previously stated that he wants to make an effort to welcome more Palestinian voices before the foreign affairs committee.
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Rep. Jamaal Bowman, the newly elected Democrat from New York who defeated pro-Israel stalwart Eliot Engel in the Democratic primaries, echoed Castro's remarks. "Netanyahu must ensure that both Israelis and Palestinians have access to the Covid vaccine. This cruelty is another reminder of why the occupation must end," he tweeted.
Rep. Marie Newman, a first-term congresswoman from Illinois, was the first Democratic lawmaker to criticize Israel for not providing Palestinians with access to vaccines while distributing them to Jewish settlers.
“This virus does not see or care about nationality, borders, or religion – its devastating impact is everywhere. The Netanyahu administration has a moral and humanitarian obligation to ensure that both Israelis & Palestinians have access to vaccines,” she tweeted on January 5. “Whether we’re talking about our own communities, the United States, or nations across the globe, we must do everything in our power to ensure vaccines are not only distributed rapidly but also equitably,” she added.
The left-wing, pro-Israel political organization J Street urged Israel to live up to its “legal and moral obligation to work with Palestinian authorities to ensure that all residents of the territory it rules over – not only Israeli citizens – receive necessary medical services,” citing two articles in the Geneva Convention.
Newman was the only lawmaker to publicly comment on the matter until last week, when Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American who is arguably Israel’s most vocal critic in Congress, harshly criticized Israel for not offering vaccines to the Palestinians.
“I think it’s really important to understand Israel is a racist state and that they would deny Palestinians, like my grandmother, access to a vaccine, that they don’t believe that she’s an equal human being that deserves to live, deserves to be able to be protected by this global pandemic,” Tlaib told Democracy Now last Tuesday. “And it’s really hard to watch as this apartheid state continues to deny their own neighbors, the people that breathe the same air they breathe, that live in the same communities.”
Rep. Josh Gottheimer, a third-term Democrat from New Jersey, implicitly criticized Tlaib’s comments by tweeting out a link to Secretary of State-nominee Antony Blinken saying he does not believe Israel is a racist state, along with a link to coverage of her comments.
Pro-Israel America, a bipartisan political action committee that steers donations to pro-Israel candidates, called Tlaib’s comments “not only offensive and dangerous, but flat-out untrue,” adding that “she must stop spreading this dangerous misinformation with her lies.”
The centrist Democratic Majority for Israel, founded to counter the growing number of progressive Democrats vocally critical of Israel, accused Tlaib of “dishonest blood libels” following her remarks. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt called Tlaib’s remarks “false and hateful,” while describing her accusations as “incendiary.”
While some of Tlaib’s critics would dismiss her remarks out of hand, it is more difficult to ignore comments from a former vice-presidential candidate. Sen. Tim Kaine, one of the most prominent senators in Congress, brought up the matter at Blinken’s confirmation hearing last week.
“There’s a vaccination campaign going on right now that in Israel is viewed as one of the leading and most innovative in the world in terms of vaccinating high percentages of people. But virtually no one in Palestine has been vaccinated, and the Israeli health minister says ‘When we are done with our citizens, then we will focus attention on our neighbors,’” Kaine said.
He added that “the Palestinians are in this odd space where they’re sort of not in one of their own countries or in a country, but they’re not considered citizens, they’re considered neighbors. This is the kind of thing that suggests we really do need to find a path forward.”
Kaine was referring to remarks from Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, who recently said: “We do have to understand that our first and foremost responsibility is to vaccinate the citizens of the State of Israel.”
Last Tuesday, Edelstein approved a Palestinian request to allow the first batch of several hundred Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses to enter the West Bank via Jordan. The government later announced that vaccines would be sent to health care workers in Gaza, as well.
While at times saying Israel has a responsibility to provide it with vaccines, the PA has simultaneously reportedly signed contracts with four companies to receive COVID-19 vaccines. No shipments have arrived as of yet. Russia reportedly donated 5,000 doses of Sputnik V, which were earmarked for health workers in the West Bank and Gaza, but these have yet to arrive due to technical difficulties.
The World Health Organization raised concerns over the vaccination issue last Monday, noting it was “trying to explore the option [of] whether Israel could consider to allocate vaccines.”
The Israeli government last week rolled back its previous claim that the Palestinians had not received any vaccines from Israel, telling the High Court of Justice that a shipment of 100 vaccine doses was provided in response to a Palestinian request, and that another shipment was expected to arrive in the next several days.
The vaccine rollout in Israel’s prisons will also not discriminate against Palestinians who were sentenced for security-related offenses, Israel Prison Service sources said, as the prisoner rollout began early last week.