COVID19 israel palestine Medical Social Issues

A Region Divided: How Israel’s COVID Vaccine Campaign Embodies the Region’s Political and Ethnic Tensions

Perhaps nothing represents the political, ethnic, and economic duality of the West Bank better than Israel’s dissemination of the COVID vaccine, which has strictly prioritized the vaccination of its settlers over the many Palestinians living in the West Bank.

Ever since 1967 when Israel began to occupy the West Bank as a result of the infamous Six-Day War, the region has been a site of profound duality and strife. For more than half a century, the West Bank has been characterized by tensions between the 2.5 million Palestinians living under occupation and the nearly 500,000 Israeli citizens who settle there, protected by the Israeli military and bolstered by the Netanyahu administration who view the settlers’ presence in the West Bank as “a religious, national [and] strategic necessity.”

While many Palestinians in the West Bank live in poverty, with the looming threat of property seizure and violence propagated by Israeli military forces looming over them on a daily basis, Israeli settlers in the same region enjoy incredible amenities provided by the Israeli state including newly constructed apartment complexes, public parks, shopping malls and factories as well as aforementioned military protection.

Perhaps nothing represents the political, ethnic, and economic duality of the West Bank better than Israel’s dissemination of the COVID vaccine, which has strictly prioritized the vaccination of its settlers over the many Palestinians living in the West Bank, many of whom work on the settlements themselves. Although Israel’s skillful and quick dissemination of the vaccine has statistical merit, its nationalistic ethos is far from laudable.

Israel, vaccinating an average approximately 12 out of every 100 citizens, is the current global leader in per capita vaccination rates. Israel’s vaccination campaign has been so successful that most Israelis over the age of 16 are expected to have two doses by the end of February. Surpassing the United States’ vaccination rate by nearly a factor of ten, Israel optimistically projects a nation-wide retreat from the virus as early as February 2021, according to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who some allege is using the successful vaccination campaign to bolster his recently compromised domestic image in preparation for the next election.

On another note, individuals around the globe have begun to grapple with skepticism related to the COVID vaccine’s efficacy and safety. In Russia, the United States, and Argentina, concerns about the vaccine run rampant amongst citizens. According to recent polls, only 71% of Americans say they will seek vaccination against the novel coronavirus. While in Russia, the nation’s vaccine has faced international criticism for its lack of extensive and appropriate testing. Accordingly, a mere 38% of Russian citizens desire vaccination. However, the questions of efficacy and safety that imperil these nations pale in comparison to the implications of the ethical, moral, and political dimension of Israel’s vaccination campaign.

Indeed, while Israel’s campaign is no stranger to interrogations of safety and efficacy, its selective and seemingly politically-motivated dissemination of the vaccine exceeds these concerns in light of its moral gravity. Israel, with a new order of an additional six million vaccines from Moderna Inc., has elected not to offer the vaccine to Palestinian civilians living in the Israel-occupied territory of the West Bank.

While Israel has reportedly delivered COVID vaccines deep inside [of] the West Bank, it had initially and explicitly chosen only to vaccinate the region’s “Jewish settlers” and to exclude the roughly 2.7 million Palestinians living beside them. Recently, the Israeli government has made a small concession to international criticism directed at their inoculation campaign by planning to send 5,000 vaccines into the West Bank for Palestinian use, though these vaccines are strictly for healthcare workers and will not be available to the general Palestinian population.

Prior to this announcement, Palestinians outside those living in East Jerusalem or working in the Palestinian hospitals there did not receive the vaccine. This recent gesture has been received poorly among human rights groups who characterize it as “insufficient and falling short of the country’s obligations.” One expert on the Middle East even referred to this gesture as “a grudging acknowledgment of their obvious responsibility for the Palestinians living under their rule,” alleging that it “demonstrates the brutal ethnic discrimination Israel practices in the West Bank, where Israeli setters are all being rapidly vaccinated while the Palestinians living next to them are largely on their own.”

With the Israeli government denying an overwhelming majority of Palestinians the option of inoculation, Palestinians living in occupied territory indeed have no option but to turn to the “cash-strapped Palestinian Authority,” which has thus far failed to secure the vaccines boasted by the Israeli state.

Much of this failure can be attributed to the technological capabilities of the Palestinian authority, which appear to be far below those of its Israeli counterpart. While Israel has been able to seamlessly disseminate the Pfizer vaccine despite its necessary storage temperature of -112°F to -76°F, the Palestinian state has just one refrigeration unit that is capable of storing the Pfizer vaccine.  Moreover, the Palestinian Authority’s capacity to acquire these vaccines is in itself a struggle. The PA’s main avenue of securing the vaccines is through a WHO-led partnership with humanitarian organizations known as COVAX. This remains aspirational, since the partnership has yet to secure the 2 billion doses it hopes to buy within the year and is financially-restricted. Therefore, for immediate relief from COVID, Palestine’s only hope is the Israeli government’s dissemination of the vaccine to Palestinian citizens.

Logistics aside, Israel’s politically-tinged campaign has drawn heat from both staunch supporters and ardent opponents of the Israeli state. One Israeli citizen, a young woman who recently received the vaccine, called Israel’s divided distribution “not fair,” explaining that “there are people [in the West Bank],” thus employing a more humanistic and less strictly nationalistic approach to the vaccine disparity. Similarly, members of the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel organization have demanded that Israel distribute the vaccine to the Palestinians within its borders (however nebulously defined or nationally contested those borders may be), going so far as to say they have a “legal obligation” to do so.

Whatever the argument, it is evident that the discrepancy in the dissemination of the vaccine by the Israeli government will have tangible, far-reaching implications for the Palestinian people. A pair of writers at The Guardian, Oliver Holmes and Hazem Balousha, project that this discrepancy could ultimately cause “Israelis [to] return to some form of normality” relatively soon “while Palestinians [will] remain trapped by the virus.”

The distribution of the COVID vaccine as orchestrated by the Netanyahu administration is deeply and almost inextricably enmeshed in its cultural, political, and religious milieu. The refusal of the Israeli state to deliver the vaccine to the Palestinians living in Israeli-occupied, despite their well-stocked supply and impressive vaccination rate, speaks volumes to as well as reflects the decades-long tensions between the Israeli state and the Palestinian people (especially in the West Bank). As with any action either side may take, Israel’s forthcoming steps related to the COVID vaccine distribution are sure to shape Israeli-Palestinian relations for years to come. In a moment when time could not be more of the essence, what happens next, and when it happens, could not be more crucial. 

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By Tatiana Zinn

Tatiana is a freshman at UCLA majoring in pre-Global Studies and hoping to pursue several minors in foreign languages. She was born and mostly raised in the U.S., but spent several years of her childhood in the United Arab Emirates, a place of immense exploitation and social injustice, which sparked her interest in human rights. After college, she hopes to go to law school and to focus on international human rights law, especially as it relates to women’s rights. Outside of academics, she loves to read, bake, and listen to The Beatles.

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