When coronavirus came to the Holy Land last spring, Israelis and Palestinians suffered alike as dysfunctional governments imposed harsh lockdowns that crippled their economies and hospitals on both sides filled with patients.
Then last month, Israel began the world’s speediest coronavirus vaccination campaign, handing out first jabs of a two-shot BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine to more than 1m citizens. Millions more are planned.
Next door, in the West Bank, occupied by the Israeli military, and in Gaza, blockaded by the same forces, millions of Palestinians waited for their turn. They are still waiting.
The stark disparity is not just an illustration of the inequities that await the global rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, with wealthy nations racing ahead of poorer ones to immunise their citizens.
It is, Palestinians said, an inevitable outcome of a half-century of occupation, leaving nearly 5m people dependent on Israel and the international community for the aid, logistics and co-ordination that a large-scale immunisation programme requires.
For Israeli officials, it is symptomatic of the failures of the Palestinian Authority, the civilian administration created by the Oslo Accords of the 1990s, which only this week informally approached the Israeli government to procure and distribute vaccine on its behalf.
Until now, Palestinian health officials had been counting on the WHO’s Covax initiative and a possible shipment of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to provide the bulk of its requirements. It is unclear when any of those will arrive, said a senior Palestinian official, but certainly not for at least another month.
The inequity has triggered an acrimonious debate within Israel and the international community, with the influential Rabbis for Human Rights group this week calling on the Israeli government to share its supplies with the Palestinians, especially the elderly and the most-at-risk.
“Judaism teaches a moral imperative not to show indifference as our neighbour suffers, but rather to mobilise and offer help in times of need,” its petition read.
The appeal, unacknowledged by Israeli officials, came as Hebrew and Arab language media carried images of Israelis celebrating after receiving their jabs.
So rapidly has Israel distributed the vaccine — for now officially only for people over 60, healthcare and essential workers and those with grave underlying conditions — that tens of thousands of young people have managed to procure one, while thousands of shots have gone to waste, according to the health ministry.
As the vaccine needs to be used within days of being taken out of cold-storage, informal groups of Israeli youth have taken to gathering outside vaccination centres to be given shots allocated to those who failed to show up.
Others gamed the system, receiving jabs by navigating the bureaucracy, calling in favours and, in some instances, bluffing their way into the queues.
“It’s painful to watch this, I have to turn off the TV so I don’t weep,” said Umm Khatib, a 73 year-old in the West Bank city of Nablus who said she had been isolated in her son’s home since the pandemic began. “When I heard they were throwing away injections at night, I thought of having my grandson drive me to Jerusalem to beg for just one chance.”
Under the 1949 Geneva Convention, Israel as the occupier is ultimately responsible for the health of the Palestinians living in the areas it controls, including “to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. There are no functioning airports in the Palestinian territories and Israel operates the only mass-storage facility for vaccines requiring refrigeration and all the borders, except for one between the Gaza Strip and Egypt. (A smaller storage facility exists in Jericho, a Palestinian enclave in the Israeli-controlled Jordan Valley.)
It also controls imports, especially in Gaza, whose healthcare system has withered under an 11-year land, sea and air blockade. That electricity is only available for a few hours a day in Gaza also makes the logistics of distributing refrigerated vaccines especially difficult.
“Israel should have been procuring enough for the nearly 5m Palestinians that live under its control, and it specifically didn’t,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer who has previously worked with President Mahmoud Abbas on negotiations with Israel. “It’s healthcare apartheid.”
Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, which is separated from the West Bank by a wall, are eligible for the Israeli vaccination program.
Israel’s foreign ministry directed queries to the country’s defence ministry, which administers the occupation of the Palestinian territories. The defence ministry declined to comment but it maintains that it co-operates fully on medical issues.
In signing the Oslo Accords, Israel agreed to hand over certain aspects of civilian life within Palestinian urban areas to the Palestinian Authority and to bilateral co-operation on issues involving healthcare and epidemics. Israeli officials said that resulted in a transfer of both authority and responsibility to the PA.
This has created an unwieldy patchwork for ill Palestinians. Even before the pandemic, WHO and human rights observers pointed to long-running problems importing medical equipment and the opaque security permit regime gravely sick Palestinians must endure to seek treatment in Israel or abroad.
Israeli officials blame the Palestinian Authority for not seeking the co-operation of the Israeli government to procure and distribute vaccines.
Alan Baker, a retired Israeli diplomat who negotiated the Oslo Accord articles that relate to healthcare, said such collaboration was built into the treaty.
“The Oslo agreements are still legally binding and, with respect to health, it is simply that — to co-operate,” he said. “There is no requirement or obligation on either side to do this, or to do that — it’s simply to co-operate, no more and no less.”