As an Israeli Jew who is profoundly grateful for Israel’s extraordinary health system and COVID-19 vaccination campaign, I find it heartbreaking, infuriating, and incredibly shortsighted that Israel is not doing everything possible to provide Palestinians with vaccines and the infrastructure to administer them, as soon as possible.
I say this not just for reasons of practical self-interest, but because irrespective of Israel’s or the Palestinian Authority’s legal obligations or lack thereof, it is the right thing to do.
The argument from self-interest is irrefutable. The pandemic, blind to constructs such as nationality and borders, has laid bare the fundamental truth that Israelis and Palestinians are inextricably linked. Approximately 100,000 Palestinians officially work in Israel or in Jewish communities in the West Bank, not to mention the thousands more who cross the Green Line regularly without a permit. Israeli soldiers frequently enter Palestinian cities. We live side by side, buy groceries side by side, and work side by side. We are one epidemiological unit. The only way one side can win in the battle against this deadly virus is if we all win.
But Israel’s understanding of our own responsibility must go beyond practical self-interest.
On some level this is personal. It devastates me that while I received the vaccine despite being young, healthy, and privileged to work from home, my Palestinian friends and colleagues, some of the most extraordinary people I know and many of whom live just twenty minutes from me, have no such hope. (The fact that Israel has committed to sending 5,000 doses to Palestinians is a good start, and nowhere near enough.)
But beyond the personal, as a people who emphasizes the infinite value of every human life and as a country that has had such praiseworthy success in securing vaccine doses that we have made them available to every citizen over sixteen, it is unfathomable that we are not doing everything in our power to offer the vaccine to every person in this land who wants one.
This is not just an issue of global inequity. We have a unique responsibility toward Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority may have limited ability to manage Palestinians’ daily affairs, but Israel’s government and military are the only ones with ultimate control over Palestinians’ lives. We control whether Palestinians can travel abroad or even leave their own cities – quite often, they can’t. We control their population registry, their airspace, and most of their natural resources. We control how much water they do, or don’t, receive. In over 60% of the West Bank we control what they can (or, nearly always, can’t) build. We control whether their cities can (or, nearly always, can’t) expand. We control their imports and exports. We enter their cities and homes almost every night, and imprison them at will inside the Green Line, often without charge or trial. If, one day, we succeed in separating into two independent states I would see this very differently. But for now there is functionally one governing power in this land.
Israel’s control over some or even all of these realms may be critical to our security. But even if so, that power must bring with it not just the kind of legal responsibility to be parsed out from long-expired accords and lofty international treaties and then grudgingly accepted, but the kind that derives from having the integrity and moral vision to recognize that wielding tremendous power brings with it moral obligation.
But what is perhaps most painful and harmful is the discourse around this issue, which both reflects and perpetuates the premise that Palestinians and Israelis are enemies locked in an us-and-them, zero-sum game. The pandemic has laid bare the dangerous fallacy of this thinking, whose dangers reach far beyond the limits of this current shared foe. Barring an act of genocide, neither Israelis nor Palestinians are going to disappear. We are all here to stay. Neither of us can “win” unless we both win. The sooner we stop seeing Palestinians as enemies in the fight for who will have a decent future and start seeing them as potential allies in building a shared future, the more chance we have of creating a reality in our lifetimes where every human and every people in this land can live in health, security, freedom, and dignity.
Israel has an extraordinary opportunity to concretely demonstrate not only our deep commitment to the value of every human life, but also the truth of our stated intent to build a just and moral state for all in this land who want to live in peace. We should be jumping at the chance to take it.