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During crises, already existing issues tend to exacerbate. Covid-19 exposed how flawed our societies are: “the poor” became poorer and the “rich” became richer. In this context of inequality, it is not surprising that millions of Palestinians are willfully exposed to severe infection risks. In fact, Israel is reportedly denying them access to the vaccines.
Currently, only the Palestinians who live in Jerusalem are part of the Israeli vaccine distribution plan. The five million Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and West Bank are excluded from the distribution program. Notwithstanding the fact that, in the West Bank, the Israeli settlers will instead receive the vaccine. This exposes, once again, what Amnesty International defines as the “institutionalised discrimination” perpetrated by the Israeli government.
Israel justifies this decision claiming that the Palestinian Authority (PA) did not formally nor informally request to be provided with vaccines. But even when it was the World Health Organisation (WHO) to informally demand the Israeli government to provide Palestinian health workers with vaccines, the response was negative. Pressures from human rights organisations led Israel to approve the shipment of 5.000 doses of vaccine to Palestinian health workers in February. An underwhelming quantity of vaccines, considering that there are five million Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
THE LEGAL DISPUTE OVER RESPONSIBILITY
On one hand, the Israelis claim that, according to the Oslo accords of 1995, the distribution of vaccines in the West Bank and Gaza is a responsibility of the Palestinian Authority.
What do the Oslo accords say?
Former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organisation Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo accords. The contended lands were divided into area “A”, “B”, and “C”. They also recognised a Palestinian interim government. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) was the representative of Palestinians and the PLO recognised the state of Israel. This should have been a five-year transition period towards the recognition of a Palestinian state. However, the diplomatic relationship between the two parties degraded throughout time. The creation of a Palestinian state did not take place as planned, and the land distribution has significantly changed.
It is therefore farfetched to use the Oslo accords as a justification of Israel’s choices. Not only because Israel itself did not respect them, but also because the current Prime Minister Netanyahu, in 2001, expressed his disagreement with the accords. In a leaked video, he in fact stated: “I de facto put an end to the Oslo Accords.”
The Geneva Conventions and their Implications for Israel
The Fourth Geneva convention is one of the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions. It aims at assuring humanitarian aid to civilian in war zones and occupied territories.
Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that
“To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, […] public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”.
Israel signed and ratified the treaty in 1951. Israel has, therefore, legally committed to provide the inhabitants of the occupied territories Gaza and West Bank with vaccines.
The treaties of the Geneva conventions are peremptory laws (jus cogens). As peremptory law is imperative, no derogation is possible. In the case of a conflict with another treaty, the latter becomes void and terminates. This further confirms that, even if the Oslo accords were still valid as written and signed in 1995, they would not be legally enforceable anymore, because of the presence of the Geneva conventions.
Finding a “solution” highlighted a broader issue
The COVAX programme, lead by the WHO, will provide two million doses of vaccines. The Palestinian Authority confirmed the purchase of two million doses of the Oxford\AstraZeneca vaccine, which will arrive between late February and early March. But they will only be enough to inoculate one million people. As two doses of the vaccine need to be inoculated for it to be effective, two million doses are still needed to reach herd immunity.
Israel received global attention and praise for the speed at which it distributed the vaccines. It vaccinated more than 20 percent of its citizens and plans to vaccine every citizen over sixteen by late March. This suggests that Israel has all the means to “ensure and maintain public health in the occupied territories”.
This also suggests that is deliberately excluding Palestinians from the process. For sure, the Palestinian Authority is working to provide Palestinians with vaccines. But this should not exempt Israel from its duty, descending from international law.
- Beside supporting Palestinians with the provision of vaccines, should the international community take action in response to Israel’s decision?
- Is Israel’s behaviour a symptom of its embedded discrimination towards Palestinians? Or is it merely a pragmatic approach to vaccine the Israeli citizens as fast as possible?
- Will Israel provide Palestinians with more than 5000 vaccines?
- Will the PA manage to obtain and distribute the vaccines rapidly enough to preserve Palestinian lives?