In Response to “A People Abandoned”
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In Issue 11 of The Spectator, Opinions writer Aya Alryyes’s article, “A People Abandoned,” criticizes Israel’s vaccine distribution to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. It discusses the “occupation” of Gaza and other territories by the Israeli government and asserts that Israel should be responsible for vaccinating all Palestinians. We would like to break down the claims made in the article and show that Israel is not obligated to distribute vaccines to Palestinians but is still doing it anyway.
The territories of the West Bank and Gaza are divided into three zones: Areas A, B, and C. Area A is governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), Area C is controlled by the Israeli government, and Area B falls under shared jurisdiction of the two entities. The article points out that the Geneva Convention tasks occupying powers with the maintenance of the public health of their occupied territories, identifying Area C of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as occupied territories. However, the Hague Regulations define occupation as being “actually placed under the authority of [a] hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.” This definition does not extend to Gaza, which is designated Area A and has not been under Israeli control since 2007.
Since then, Israel has blockaded the Gaza Strip to protect Israeli citizens from “terrorism, rocket attacks and any other hostile activity,” which Alryyes deems “de facto occupation” even though it does not meet the internationally agreed-upon criteria. Israel is no more responsible for the administration of public health in Gaza than Egypt, which also shares a border with and blockades Gaza. Only Area C meets the criteria for occupation, and in this regard, we agree with Alryyes that Israel has an obligation to distribute vaccines to all those living in Area C. This distinction has not stopped Israel from already distributing vaccines to Palestinians outside these areas.
Israel has administered vaccines and facilitated their transport to PA-controlled regions. It allowed the first vaccines into Gaza through the blockade since the second week of February and has been continuing its vaccination efforts in the region since. Furthermore, Israel permitted a 40 thousand vaccine shipment from the United Arab Emirates to enter Gaza on March 18. Israel began its two-week campaign to vaccinate over 100 thousand Palestinians who carry Israeli work permits as of March 8. This campaign consists of setting up eight vaccination centers along the border between Israel and the Palestinian territories. These centers have the ability to vaccinate 1,000 people per day. It also opened four vaccination clinics at industrial centers within the West Bank. More help is on the way, however, as the PA has announced that it will be receiving 37 thousand Pfizer-BioNTech doses and 168 thousand AstraZeneca doses in the coming months.
Many say Israel has not vaccinated enough Palestinians or has blocked access to vaccines in these territories for any significant amount of time. The healthcare systems in Israel are superior to those in Palestine. Israel’s healthcare system consists of four main providers that are connected to a national network that is constantly updated with patient records. This system makes it incredibly easy for Israelis to book and receive vaccine appointments, which they can do by phone or by text message. Though Palestine does have a healthcare system with compulsory enrollment, the standard care for a healthy individual is much lower. The PA spent about $294 per Palestinian in 2012, as compared to the Israeli government’s spending of $2,046 per Israeli in 2011. Israel is also able to set up vaccine centers much more easily and has set up around 400 vaccine centers across the country, including in Arab towns. In fact, Israeli Arabs have a higher vaccination rate than Orthodox Jews, with about 68 percent of Israeli Arabs over the age of 50 having received the vaccine at least once as compared to 62 percent of ultra-Orthodox Jews in the same age group. This distribution is clearly not a matter of Israeli discrimination against any group since it is beneficial to Palestinians and Israelis alike to vaccinate the entire country. As U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price put it, “We believe it’s important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccine in the weeks ahead. We believe it’s important for their own—for their own needs. It's important for Israel, Israel’s health and security as well.” Alryyes’s article claims that Israel has been vaccinating Jewish settlers in the West Bank, but not their Arab neighbors. Though Area C is predominantly Jewish, Israeli health workers have been distributing the vaccine to willing Jews and Palestinians alike.
Additionally, Israel has good reason for skepticism about the PA’s ability to administer vaccines. The Independent Commission for Human Rights, a Palestinian human rights group, has accused Palestinian officials of distributing vaccines meant for healthcare workers to other politicians and their friends. Palestinian officials were initially opposed to receiving vaccines from Israel. One official said, “We are working on our own to obtain the vaccine from a number of sources. We are not a department in the Israeli Defense Ministry. We have our own government and Ministry of Health, and they are making huge efforts to get the vaccine.” Communication must precede collaboration between Israel and the PA. If the PA denies the aid offered to them, then Israel cannot be accused of not providing vaccines to Palestinians. Ultimately, it is clear that Israel’s incredible vaccination efforts also extend to their work in Palestine, even though they are not legally obligated to administer these vaccinations.
The Israeli government is not being negligent and immoral in regard to the distribution of vaccines in Palestine and is actually doing more than is legally expected of them. Those who claim that the Israeli government is not doing enough to vaccinate Palestinians are using the COVID-19 vaccine as a political weapon to demonize the state of Israel. This claim is not a fair assessment of the work that Israeli officials are doing in order to get the vaccine to everyone, regardless of where they live within the region. It is essential that in the face of COVID-19, we band together to administer the vaccine as efficiently as possible, rather than being counterproductive by accusing certain groups of not doing enough.