Israel is basking in positive international recognition for truly rapid and efficient COVID-19 vaccination rates among citizens. However, the Israeli militarily occupies the West Bank and Gaza and the under-reported story there is that the population has no or limited access to vaccinations.
Under international law, an occupying nation must provide basic medical care to its occupied populations. In addition, Palestinians living in Israel are not Israeli citizens and not granted the rights of citizens.
A zoom discussion in late January hosted by Peoria Area World Affairs Council turned “lively” with some more heated comments during a presentation by Daniel Aschheim, Consul for Public Diplomacy at the Consulate General in Chicago. The session was moderated by Shelley Epstein, retired after a long career at the Peoria Journal Star.
“Israel is leading the world in vaccinations per capita,” Aschheim said, noting Israel was one of the first countries to understand COVID and “shut down the country.”
The chat panel quickly began to light up with questions. One stated there are no vaccinations for Palestinians, and people in Gaza can’t even wash their hands because of water shortages, and power blackouts are common.
Reached after listening to the PAWAC program, Dr. Alice Rothchild, author and retired ob-gyn physician, said “The COVID pandemic is a moment to understand the world rises and falls together,” yet Israel is focused on vaccinating its own citizens while “tens of thousands of Palestinians work in Israel and don’t get vaccinated.”
She has volunteered in Gaza and said, “most alarming to me is the level of trauma from war and Israeli attacks. Every time I go, the attacks are a constant source of suffering.”
Gaza is being “bombed into the dark ages,” she said.
In response to the criticism that Israel is responding to attacks not initiating them, Rothchild said “Israel is the occupying power” and there is a massive imbalance of force and resources.
People voted in Hamas for its social service activity not its militant anti-Israeli rhetoric.
The way to stop violence against Israel is for Israel to be less oppressive in Gaza and the West Bank, she said.
This is about human rights and an anti-apartheid agenda, Rothchild said, noting she supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a totally nonviolent tactic to stand up for human rights.
Disparities in access to COVID vaccinations are emblematic of problems within the region. Life in a militarized society has resulted in more domestic violence and suicide within Israel.
Also reached after listening to the PAWAC forum was Priscilla Read, member of the Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy. Both Read and Rothchild cited the strong Israeli lobby for suppression of journalistic coverage of the violations of Palestinian human rights.
When questioned during the forum about lack of vaccinations for the population in the occupied territories, Aschheim cited the Geneva Convention and the Oslo Accords and contended medical care falls to the Palestinian Authority. He received pushback by commenters who cited the blockade that leaves medical supplies in short supply and the intended short-term duration of the Oslo Accords that have far exceeded their intended life expectancy.
Read said following World War II, the world acknowledged the need for the nation of Israel. However, she equates the history of Israel with the history of Indigenous people in America that faced “settler colonialism.”
She said international law clearly holds Israel responsible for supplying COVID vaccines in its occupied territories.
Read said it’s wrong for the BDS movement to be equated with anti-Semitism. She supports BDS as a nonviolent way to advocate for human rights. She no longer sees a two-state solution as viable.
“It is a fantasy. It has long since ceased to be a viable possibility” because Israel has annexed so much territory, she said, contending one state with equal rights for all is the best possibility for peace.
As a member of the Chicago Faith Coalition on Middle East Policy, Read is spearheading an effort to meet with members of Congress about Israel’s position on COVID vaccines for Palestinians and the withdrawal of U.S. aid to Palestinians.
Since the PAWAC forum, there has been some movement to get vaccinations into the occupied territories. The United Nations issued a statement affirming it is Israel’s responsibility to get vaccinations to Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza and neither the Oslo Accords nor the Geneva Convention shift that responsibility to the Palestinian Authority.
During an earlier online discussion hosted by the American Friends Service Committee, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, president of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, said whatever happens regarding vaccine distribution and the COVID pandemic, “another emergency is coming and without a just political resolution, these crises will keep happening.” He called the situation “medical apartheid.”