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Palestinians Left to Wait—and Die—as Israel Prepares to Vaccinate Against Covid-19

"Israel has the legal, moral, and humanitarian responsibility to vaccinate the Palestinian population, which lives in distress under its control," wrote the editors of one leading Tel-Aviv paper. 

Empty streets are a sign of the times throughout Gaza, which is living under a government-imposed coronavirus curfew. (Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

An aerial photograph taken on December 11, 2020 shows empty streets during a complete closure on weekends amid the ongoing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic in Gaza City. (Photo: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

Wealthy nations have been hoarding coronavirus vaccines at the expense of the Global South in what some international health advocates are calling "vaccine apartheid." But millions of Palestinians living under what many critics call actual apartheid will be forced to wait for vaccination as Israel prepares to innoculate its own population—including people living in illegal settlements in the West Bank—while ignoring the people subjected to Israeli military occupation. 

"Israelis and Palestinians live in very close proximity to each other, so it really isn't possible to eliminate the pandemic in Israel proper while it is still raging in the other territories it is responsible for."
Haaretz editors

The Associated Press reports the government of Israel will begin a major Covid-19 vaccination drive next week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu personally and repeatedly appealed to Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. Israel will receive eight million doses of Pfizer's vaccine, or nearly enough to innoculate half of its population of nine million, since recipients require two doses. 

Israeli health authorities are ready and standing by with refrigerated mobile units that can store Pfizer's vaccine at the requisite -94°F, with a daily capacity of more than 60,000 injections. Earlier this month, Israeli officials signed a separate agreement with Moderna to acquire six million doses of its vaccine. Between the Pfizer and Moderna stocks Israel will have enough doses to innoculate its entire population.

The Israeli vaccination campaign will include its approximately 450,000 citizens living illegally in exclusively Jewish settler colonies inside the unlawfully occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, but not the 2.5 million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation there. They must wait for the financially beleaguered Palestinian Authority (PA) to acquire and distribute a vaccine. 

The PA is pinning its vaccine hopes on COVAX, the World Health Organization-led partnership with international humanitarian groups that aim to provide free vaccines to up to 20% of people in developing countries.

However, according to the AP, COVAX has only secured access to a fraction of the two billion vaccine doses it seeks to acquire over the next year. The program is also reportedly short on funds. 

As Common Dreams reported last week, nine out of 10 people in nearly 70 low-income countries are unlikely to be inoculated against the coronavirus in the coming year because most of the most effective vaccines developed so far have been bought up by wealthy nations, leaving the world's poorest people at the mercy of the raging Covid-19 pandemic.

"Rich countries have enough doses to vaccinate everyone nearly three times over, whilst poor countries don't even have enough to reach health workers and people at risk," Dr. Mohga Kamal Yanni of the People's Vaccine Alliance said last week.

Senior Palestinian health official Dr. Ali Abed Rabbo told the AP that the PA hopes to vaccinate one-fifth of Palestine's people under the COVAX program, starting with healthcare workers.

"The remainder will depend on Palestine purchasing from the global supply, and we are working with several companies," including Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and the makers of Russia's mostly untested vaccine, Rabbo said.

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Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the WHO office for the Palestinian territories, told the AP that "we hope that sometime during the first quarter of the next year that the first vaccines will start arriving" there. 

Haaretz reported Thursday that Israel currently has 21,544 active Covid-19 cases, and 3,034 Israelis have died during the pandemic. The Israeli paper reported 16,127 cases and 934 deaths among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, and 8,851 cases and 220 deaths in the besieged Gaza Strip. 

On Tuesday, Haaretz editors wrote that "Israel has the legal, moral, and humanitarian responsibility to vaccinate the Palestinian population, which lives in distress under its control and whose lives intertwine with the lives of many Israelis."

"Israelis and Palestinians live in very close proximity to each other, so it really isn't possible to eliminate the pandemic in Israel proper while it is still raging in the other territories it is responsible for," they added in their editorial. 

Deputy Israeli Health Minister Yoav Kish told Public Radio Israel Thursday that "should we see that Israel's demands have been met and we have additional capability, we will certainly consider helping the Palestinian Authority."  

Tens of thousands of Palestinians also work in Israel and its settlements. 

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel told the AP that as an occupying power, Israel has a legal obligation to vaccinate the people under its domination.  

"Israel still maintains control over many aspects of the Palestinians' lives, whether checkpoints, importing goods and medication, and controlling the movement of people," said Ghada Majadle, the group's director in Palestine.

"The Palestinian health system, whether in the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, is in dire condition," she added, "mainly [due to] restrictions imposed by Israel." 

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