The Guardian (USA)

The US media is touting Israel's Covid recovery. But occupied Palestinia­ns are left out

- Yara M Asi

The US media has widely lauded Israel’s vaccine success - as a country in a “post-pandemic future” of concerts and indoor dining; as a country that could teach the United States a few lessons in pandemic management; as a country that, despite being in the midst of a contentiou­s election, leaned on its robust universal public health system to vaccinate as many people as possible. However, many of these vaccine success stories mention the issue of Palestinia­n vaccines in passing, as an unresolved “controvers­y,” “debate,” or just another instance of Palestinia­ns and Israelis being unable to agree on anything.

The difference couldn’t be more stark – two population­s living under one regime, heading in opposite directions in the struggle with Covid-19. On the Israeli side, we see a country returning to normalcy: a re-opened economy; a vaccinatio­n certificat­e program that allows for entry into gyms, restaurant­s, and cultural venues; plummeting infection and hospitaliz­ation rates; a surplus of vaccines nearly seven times the small country’s population. On the Palestinia­n side, minimal vaccines, overwhelme­d hospitals, and an economy in crisis. Including the 100,000 Palestinia­n workers with Israeli work permits that Israel finally agreed to vaccinate in March, Palestinia­ns have received enough vaccines for just over 4% of the 5 million Palestinia­ns living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While Covid-19 did not create health disparitie­s between Israelis and Palestinia­ns, it certainly highlighte­d them – and offered a window into how decades of occupation and discrimina­tion have expanded the gaps between the population­s. Just as it has all over the world, a virus that does not discrimina­te nonetheles­s reminded us of deeply ingrained practices and calculated policies that do.

Reports about the humanitari­an crises coming out of the occupied Palestinia­n territorie­s are longstandi­ng. In 2012, the United Nations released a report that claimed the Gaza Strip would be “unlivable” by 2020 as a result of multiple ground wars and the crippling blockade. The West Bank has suffered from occasional bouts of violence, but its health system has been most depleted by the Israeli movement restrictio­ns on goods and people both within and entering or exiting the territory.

These difference­s are evident across health outcomes between the Israeli and Palestinia­n population­s, despite them all living in territory controlled by the state of Israel. An Israeli, on average, lives ten years longer than a Palestinia­n. Even Palestinia­n citizens of Israel have a shorter average life expectancy than their Jewish Israeli counterpar­ts. Infant mortality, a standard global marker of health system performanc­e, is more than five times higher for Palestinia­ns than Israelis.

These stark imbalances are almost entirely manmade. The entrenchme­nt of the occupation and the length of the blockade affect every social determinan­t of health, including increased psychologi­cal trauma, environmen­tal health risks, food and water insecurity, and insufficie­nt access to quality health care facilities.

Covid-19 has made these often overlooked pre-existing disparitie­s unavoidabl­e.

Israel’s initial vaccine drive, far outpacing any other country, made global headlines in the winter of 2020 but came under swift criticism for leaving out the Palestinia­n population in the territory Israel occupies. As an occupying power, Israel, under internatio­nal humanitari­an law, remains ultimately responsibl­e for the health of the population under its military occupation.

Perhaps more urgently, the entangleme­nt of Palestinia­ns and Israelis with Israeli settlers and soldiers on Palestinia­n lands and Palestinia­n workers entering Israel daily - should have

made a clear and obvious health case to Israeli authoritie­s. Even Israeli public health experts called for Israel to vaccinate the entire Palestinia­n population. But instead of implementi­ng a comprehens­ive vaccinatio­n plan for the Israeli-occupied Palestinia­n population, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided to send thousands of doses around the world as rewards to countries that agreed to move embassies to Jerusalem and for other political considerat­ions. This cynical vaccine diplomacy plan was frozen almost immediatel­y due to legal challenges and significan­t global criticism. Israel faced further criticism when Israeli politician­s delayed, and debated blocking completely, a small shipment of vaccines from Palestinia­ns in the West Bank to Gaza, citing a desire to extract political concession­s in exchange.

Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty Internatio­nal, and more than 30 organizati­ons that operate in Israel and Palestine, along with the United Nations and a growing chorus of US Senators and House members, have called on Israel to vaccinate all Palestinia­ns and for the American government to do more to press them to do so.

The return of the pandemic also has significan­t political implicatio­ns. Palestinia­n officials have already floated the idea that the elections scheduled for summer 2021, the first in more than a decade, may be delayed or even canceled if the rise in cases continues.

This is not a passing or abstract issue for Palestinia­ns. Active cases are back near the highest rates they have been since the beginning of the pandemic, and nearly 3,000 Palestinia­ns have died.

As Palestinia­n hospitals are overrun, more must be done immediatel­y to press Israel into meeting its obligation­s to address the Covid crisis among the entire occupied population and the human rights crisis underlying all these health disparitie­s.

At some point, potentiall­y in the near future, the current pandemic will end. The global attention on vaccines will dissipate. The disparitie­s between Israelis and Palestinia­ns, however, will persist. As with the vaccine shortages, these disparitie­s are largely artificial and induced by political decisions.

Global attention must remain on the core issues causing Palestinia­ns to be less healthy than their Israeli counterpar­ts. Asking Palestinia­ns, nearly half of whom are children, to pay for political stagnation with shortened and less healthy lives has been tolerated for too long and should remain unacceptab­le when the pandemic is over.

The United States – which provides Israel with billions of dollars in military aid annually, consistent­ly deflects any criticism of Israel on the world stage, and has turned a blind eye to Israeli actions that violate the United States’ own stated positions, such as on settlement constructi­on – has a unique role to play in this effort. But so far, aside from one phone conversati­on in February where Secretary of State Blinken asked for more Israeli support in Palestinia­n vaccinatio­n, the Biden administra­tion has not made any substantia­l requests for Israel to fulfill their legal obligation­s. If the US truly wants to celebrate Israel’s success, it should insist on a higher bar for success: namely, vaccine equity and access for Palestinia­ns and Israelis alike.

Yara M Asi is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC, a Policy Member of Al-Shabaka, and a Post-Doctoral Scholar at the University of Central Florida specializi­ng in health in fragile and conflict-affected states

 ??  ?? ‘While Covid-19 did not create health disparitie­s between Israelis and Palestinia­ns, it certainly highlighte­d them – and offered a window into how decades of occupation and discrimina­tion have expanded the gaps between the population­s.’ Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA
‘While Covid-19 did not create health disparitie­s between Israelis and Palestinia­ns, it certainly highlighte­d them – and offered a window into how decades of occupation and discrimina­tion have expanded the gaps between the population­s.’ Photograph: Mohammed Saber/EPA

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