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Israel refuses to take responsibility for West Bankers, Gazans suffering COVID infections, deaths

Jan 20,2021 - Last updated at Jan 20,2021

Despite appeals from the UN and human rights organisations, Israel continues to dismiss calls to vaccinate against COVID or provide vaccines to Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel has so far inoculated 2 million Israelis, including members of the Palestinian minority, and Palestinian residents of annexed East Jerusalem. But, Israel refuses to take responsibility for the 5 million West Bankers and Gazans who have suffered 160,000 COVID infections and 1,700 deaths. Last week, Israel reluctantly agreed to vaccinate Palestinian detainees as well as Israeli prisoners after rights groups insisted that exclusion would violate detainees' fundamental rights as well as pose a risk to incarcerated Israelis and prison staff.

Although Israel has already vaccinated 20 per cent of its 9 million citizens and plans to complete the task by the end of March, it donated only 100 vaccines to the Palestinian Authority as a "humanitarian gesture" while refusing to deliver thousands of doses to the West Bank and Gaza. In the West Bank, this exposes to infection Israeli colonists who live near Palestinian communities and rely on Palestinian labour.

UN human rights experts have repeatedly warned Israel that vaccines must be made avaliable to West Bankers and Gazans. "Morally and legally, this different access to necessary healthcare in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century is unacceptable."

Under international law, Israel is bound to provide heath care to Palestinians living in the occupied territories. Amnesty International's regional director Saleh Higazi argued that Israel's COVID vaccination programme "highlights the institutionalised discrimination that defines the Israeli government's policy towards Palestinians”.

Amnesty's report quoted Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention which states, "Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law include the duty of ensuring and maintaining the medical and hospital establishments and services, 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 has not only refused to inoculate Palestinians now that vaccines are available, it has done little or nothing to provide test kits, protective gear, and medicine to the West Bank and Gaza since the pandemic emerged. In the case of Gaza, Israel's siege and blockade of the strip has slowed or impeded external deliveries of life-saving aid provided by the World Health Organisation.

Amnesty made the point that since the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza struggle to "fund vaccines and [effect] their distribution among the Palestinian population, [Palestinians] depend on global cooperation mechanisms" which have yet to provide vaccines. Although, the fatality rate among Palestinians in the occupied territories is higher than in Israel, the Palestinian Authority will not begin to receive vaccines to cover 70 per cent of the Palestinian population from four firms until the end of March. Therefore, Israel must assume its responsibilities by promptly distributing vaccines to Palestinians.

The word used frequently by Amnesty is "discrimination", others define the differentiation as "apartheid". Which is the root of the Palestinian predicament. During an interview with Mustafa Barghouti, head of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, Democracy Now's Amy Goodman described Israel's COVID vaccine policy as "medical apartheid". He agreed and pointed out that even Palestinian medics have not received vaccinations.

Last week, Israel's premier human rights organisation B'Tselem issued a damning report on the regime of "Israeli Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean". B'Tselem called this regime "apartheid" which means "apartness" or "separation”.

Apartheid is nothing new in the land from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean. Apartheid is in the DNA of Israel. It was introduced by European Zionist settlers who flocked to Palestine under British rule following Lord Balfour's 1917 pledge to facilitate the establishment of a "national homeland for the Jewish people" in Palestine despite opposition from its natives.

Apartheid was made manifest by the UN General Assembly 50 years later when it proposed the partition of Palestine between Jewish colonists, who were one-third of the population, and Palestinian natives. Apartheid was implemented on the ground during and after the 1948-49 war that established Israel and drove half of Palestine's 1,300 indigenous people from their lands and homes in 78 per cent of their country.  The 156,000 Palestinians who remained in areas conquered by Israel dwelled under martial law until 1967, subjected to discrimination and expropriation of their land, and treated as second, third, fourth or fifth class citizens.  It is interesting to note that South Africa's racist National Party introduced apartheid in 1948, the year of Israel's foundation.

B'Tslem explained that the 14 million people, half Israelis, half Palestinians, who live under Israeli rule are treated very differently.  Jewish Israelis who dwell in Israel proper and West Bank colonies are governed by democratic norms and enjoy full rights, while Palestinian citizens of Israel still "do not enjoy the same rights as Jewish citizens by either law or practice".

Palestinians residing elsewhere are fragmented. Those who live in East Jerusalem are considered "permanent residents" and permitted to vote in local elections, work in Israel and receive social benefits and health insurance. However, their residency "may be revoked at any time" or expire.

The West Bank is treated by Israel as its "own" territory without formal annexation, B'Tselem stated. Palestinians there live under military rule without political rights. While Israel has granted the Palestinian Authority some responsibilities, it remains "subordinate to Israel".

Palestinians in Gaza are "also denied political rights" and live under permanent blockade and Israeli control from outside.

B'Tselem summed up the situation by saying that this demographic regime is "designed to cement the supremacy of one group.. over another." In response to B'Tslem's apartheid report, Education Minister Yoav Galant barred the organisation and others taking the same line from lecturing at Israeli schools.

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