Bishara A. Bahbah

Should Israel provide the COVID-19 vaccine to Palestinians?

Does Israel have the legal or moral obligation to secure the COVID-19 vaccine to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza?

Any answer will depend, without any particular order, on who you ask, the political will of Israeli and the Palestinian leaders and their willingness to cooperate, practical considerations, the availability of the vaccine, who is paying for it, and the interpretation of international law.

At the onset of the spread of COVID-19 in Israel and the West Bank in the spring of 2020, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin took the initiative to call Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Rivlin told Abbas that “the world is dealing with a crisis that does not distinguish between people or where they live.” President Rivlin emphasized that “cooperation between us is vital to ensure the health of both Israelis and Palestinians.” In return, President Abbas offered his full cooperation in the fight against this deadly disease, according to what Dr. Majdi Khalidi, a senior advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told me.

For several months afterwards, the Palestinian Ministry of Health did, in fact, cooperate closely with Israel’s Ministry of Health, according to what Dr. Mai Kaila, the Palestinian Health Minister, told me. Israel provided testing kits, gloves, face masks and special outfits to the Palestinians. Israeli health officials also trained Palestinian health officials on how to administer those tests and how to reduce the spread of the disease. Finally, Israel also agreed to the Palestinians’ request to have some of those test kits be sent to Israeli labs for analysis.

Going back to the question of whether Israel has the legal or moral obligation to provide the vaccine to the Palestinians, Palestinians, legal experts, and human rights activists, would say that Israel is obliged to provide the Palestinians with the vaccine. From the standpoint of international law and the Geneva Convention, neither Gaza nor the areas under PA control, are sovereign territories. Rather, they are viewed as occupied territories because of Israel’s ultimate control of the movement of people and goods in both Gaza and the West Bank.

Despite all the interim Oslo agreements signed between Israel and the PLO regarding the status of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem, all Palestinians in those areas are in reality under Israel’s military occupation and/or control. East Jerusalem Palestinians have been provided with Israeli residency rights because of Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem and will, therefore, be provided with the vaccine along with Israel’s general population.

Cooperation between Israel and the PA in fighting the pandemic fell victim to politics and broke down over the issue of Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley. The PA halted cooperation with Israel on most levels, including in the area of fighting the pandemic.

Israel’s health minister, Yuli Edelstein, indicated in an article written by Isabel Kershner on January 1 and published in the New York Times, that Israel’s first obligation was to its citizens, but it was in Israel’s interest to help suppress the infection among Palestinians. He added, “If, God willing, there will be a situation where we can say we are in a position to help others,” he said, “no doubt it will be done.”

In the meantime, the Palestinian Authority (PA) has not been idle in its attempts to secure the vaccine. The PA has already applied for financial support from the global vaccine-sharing system Covax and was working with international organizations on the logistics. It is projected that the most the PA could secure from Covax would be enough to administer the vaccine to approximately 20 percent of the Palestinian population. The PA has also asked local pharmaceutical distributors to purchase the Chinese version of the vaccine with a commitment to reimburse them for the vaccine as funds become available to the PA.

Practically, the boundaries between Israel and the West Bank are porous and the inter-mingling between Israelis and Palestinians is ongoing and inevitable. The 400,000 Israeli settlers in the West Bank live there alongside 2.5 million Palestinians and often shop at the same grocery stores. Close to 140,000 Palestinians work in Israel and commute daily back and forth between the West Bank and Israel. Additionally, a large number of Palestinians work in Israeli settlements as construction workers, factory employees, or in sanitation.

During a briefing in July 2020 to the UN Security Council, Nickolay Mladenov, the UN’s Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process reported that the dramatic increase in novel coronavirus cases in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Israel is having a big impact on the situation on the ground. He stressed that the “primary responsibility for people’s well-being still remains with the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli Government.”

No one can force Israel to provide the vaccine to the Palestinians no matter how one interprets Israeli obligations under international law and the Geneva Conventions. However, given the proximity of Israelis and Palestinians, it is in Israel’s best interest to help provide the vaccine to those Palestinians who work in Israel and the settlements. Israel is also morally bound to provide the vaccine to, at the very least, Palestinian health workers and those who are most vulnerable, those who 60 years old and above.

Everyone knows that the coffers of the PA are virtually empty. As such, without international assistance and a significant Israeli contribution to provide the vaccine to the Palestinians, the whole Israel/Palestine area will continue to be at risk from this deadly pandemic. Now is the time to demonstrate one’s humanity and set aside politics.

About the Author
Dr. Bishara Bahbah is vice president of the US Palestinian Council (USPC), one of the major Palestinian-American advocacy and educational groups in the United States operating out of Washington, DC. Bahbah is former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper, Al-Fajr. He served as the associate director of Harvard University’s Middle East Institute and was a member of the Palestinian delegation on arms control and regional security.
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