(The following article was published in “The Left Berlin” website.)
The Covid-19 pandemic posed a harsh “surprise test” for many states as well as local and global organizations and human societies in general. The arrival of the vaccine, though it was long expected, posed another harsh test for our ‘one-but-unequal’ worldwide society.
The first weeks of the distribution of the newly available vaccines exposed the incompetence or indifference of many states in caring for their citizens. But, above all, they exposed the international system of apartheid, where all the supposedly “premium” vaccines from western manufacturers are divided between the western capitalist states. One striking example is the case of Ukraine, that tried to buy vaccine from manufacturers like Pfizer, only to be blocked by an executive order from the USA administration banning its export.
Israel was late to contact Pfizer, which happened to be the first producer to succeed to license its Covid-19 vaccine in the EU and the USA. Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu boasted that he talked 17 times on the phone with Pfizer’s president Bourla over the past weeks. Netanyahu secured enough vaccine for all Israel’s citizens above the age of 16 before the end of March. Needless to say, this bargain, one that puts Israel’s citizens before those of the vaccine’s inventors and producers in Germany and the USA, was not blocked by Trump.
This came just in time for embattled Netanyahu’s personal ambitions, as he tries to avoid a pending trial on several counts of corruption. He caused his divided government to fall by preventing the adoption of a budget, and set elections for March 23. He is hoping to ride the vaccine wave and get a majority in the Knesset that will provide him with legal immunity.
But Israel not only gets top priority in the world-wide apartheid order. It also has its internal deeply established apartheid system. When Israel speaks of vaccinating “all its citizens”, it completely ignores millions of Palestinians who live under its rule as subjects with no rights. Actually, the whole world is adopting this racist Israeli approach. When, for example, we read in the papers that “25% of Israel’s population was already vaccinated”, this percentage is computed out of the some 9 million “citizens” – leaving aside more than 5 million Palestinians that Israel didn’t even think about their need for the vaccine.
Even independent data providers like “ourworldindata.org” (see figure below), buy into this Israeli Apartheid statistics. The excuse, of course, is the artificial division between the territories that Israel occupied in 1948, performing ethnic cleansing of most of the native population, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip that Israel occupied in 1967. The first, 1948 occupied areas, are regarded by many as a legitimate and “democratic” Israel, as the ethnic cleansing and the prevention of the return of the Palestinian refugees ensured Jewish majority in those areas. The 1967 occupation is regarded as “temporary” – even as most of the population there is a second generation to live under this “temporary” rule that deny them all basic human rights.
The reality on the ground has no connection to this illusionary view, in all aspects of life, healthcare and vaccination included. Jewish settlers in the West Bank, and there are more than half a million of them, of course get the Covid-19 vaccine like any other citizen and are part of the official Israeli statistics. So, the denial of rights, and the wiping out from the statistics, is just in case you happened to be Palestinian.
On December 23, 2020, as Israel started its vaccination campaign, 20 human rights organizations published a call to the Israel government to respect its obligation under the international law to take responsibility for the health of the population under its occupation. They wrote: “The Israeli Ministry of Health has not yet publicly formulated an allocation policy that includes reserving specific amounts for Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), nor has it established a timeline for the transfer of these vaccines. However, Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically provides that an occupier has the duty of ensuring “the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”. This duty includes providing support for the purchase and distribution of vaccines to the Palestinian population under its control.”
The situation in the Gaza Strip, a densely populated area with 2 million people, most of them refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing, is even much worse than in the West Bank. After the bloody oppression of the second intifada (2000-2005) failed to break the resistance, Israel changed tactics and withdrew from within the strip, converting it to a huge open-air prison, controlled from outside by snipers, artillery and drones. This enabled the only semi-democratic elections in the history of the Palestinian Authority in 2006, which was won by Hamas. Under strict siege by Israel and Egypt, the pandemic was late to invade the strip, but lately it flared there, where there is hardly any space for social distancing and the health services are deprived of resources due to poverty and the siege.
Israel is cynically trying to use the pandemic to press the Hamas government in Gaza to agree to its terms for a prisoners’ exchange deal. Hamas captured two Israeli soldiers during the invasion of the strip in a bloody massacres campaign in 2014 and two Israeli citizens that entered the strip. Israel claims that both soldiers are dead, after doing its utmost to make sure it is true. Hamas wants the prisoners’ exchange to release as many as possible of the some 5000 Palestinian prisoners that are held by Israel. Now Israel is seeing the pandemic as “an opportunity” to lower the number of Palestinians to be released.
The family of one of the soldiers appealed to the Israeli “high court” to prevent any supply of the Covid-19 vaccine to the Gaza strip until the soldiers are released. In their reply, the Israeli state representatives promised the court that there is no intention to let vaccine to the strip anytime soon. They even claimed initially that the whole Palestine Authority (PA) has no vaccine, but on January 13 “admitted” that Israel passed to the PA 100 doses(!) “for humanitarian reasons”.
It is worth noting that the lawyer that is demanding in court, in the name of the soldier’s family, to prevent vaccination from 2 million people in Gaza is the Dean of Sha’arei Mishpat Law School, Professor Aviad Ha’cohen. He is doing it as part of his university’s “pro-bono” program.
Another especially vulnerable population are the thousands of Palestinian prisoners, many of them old (as Israel imprisons Palestinian to ultra-log periods, with no proportion to what they were accused of) and many of them already suffering from other diseases due to harsh conditions and systematic medical neglect. Israel’s minister of internal security, Amir Ohana, which is responsible to the Prisons’ Authority, is a former Shabak operator. He tries to gain popularity with racist public opinion by loudly refusing to vaccinate Palestinian prisoners. He was told by official legal and health experts that public health policies (like vaccinating all people over 60) should be applied also to all prisoners. Lately he seems to have hardened his stance and now objects to the inoculation of all prisoners. The fate of the prisoners is still hung in court while the pandemic is spreading in the prisons.
While Israel’s advanced health services (for those that are entitled to receive them) rely heavily of Palestinian doctors and nurses, the service itself is not equally administered in the Arab Palestinian communities (within the green line) from with most of these doctors and nurses come. Human rights organizations complained of lack of explanatory materials in Arabic, lack of vaccination centers, etc., this on top of the chronic problems of poverty, bad infrastructure, lack of public transport and the situation in dozens of unrecognized villages that are not receiving services at all.
All this is a stark demonstration of the nature of the Israeli regime, which B’Tselem recently declared to be a proper Apartheid State. The Covid-19 pandemic exposes this regime in its most ugly manifestations. The struggle for equality and social justice will probably stay with us long after the virus will be defeated.