The absurdity of demanding Gaza get its own COVID-19 vaccines

Israel can’t cherry-pick its obligations to Gaza while undermining every facet of Palestinian self-rule — especially during a pandemic.

Palestinian Health Ministry crews conduct medical tests in Rafah, Gaza, on January 14, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinian Health Ministry crews conduct medical tests in Rafah, Gaza, on January 14, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

More than 15 years ago, Israel pulled its settlers out of Gaza and dismantled its military installations there. Even prior to the “disengagement,” Israel began crafting a narrative whereby it was “leaving Gaza” and would no longer owe any obligations to its Palestinian residents. In court and in Foreign Ministry briefs, it argued that there hadn’t been an occupation in Gaza, but in any case, if there had, it was now over.

To the press and in public statements, Israeli officials patronized Palestinians in the strip, saying they were welcome to prove that they were worthy of a state of their own by demonstrating whether or not they could turn Gaza into the new Singapore of the Middle East.

Anyone paying attention at the time knew this would be impossible — not because Palestinians are inherently corrupt or incapable of self-rule, as the narrative went — but because of the reality on the ground. Israel never relinquished its control over Gaza, including over its crossings, sea, and airspace. The creation of the State of Israel, some 60 years earlier, had displaced hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, many of whom became refugees in a narrow strip of land not intended to house so many for so long. What should have been a temporary crisis turned into a permanent nightmare of dispossession and neglect.

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By 2005, Gaza had already experienced 38 years of Israeli military rule from inside the territory and a decade of “self-governance” under the Palestinian Authority, as provided for under the Oslo Accords. Then, like now, the PA was expected to assume all the burdens of sovereignty without enjoying any of the benefits, such as paying for healthcare without having control over the economy.

In the more than 15 years since the disengagement, rather than facilitating the conditions that may have been conducive to making Gaza more like Singapore, Israel has done the opposite. It has repeatedly denied, blocked, and even destroyed the foundations of Gaza’s struggling economy and civilian infrastructure. It has done this through closure, repeated military campaigns, and continued control over Gaza’s airspace, territorial waters, border crossings, population registry, and the majority of its electricity and fuel supply. None of these facets of self-rule were handed over to Gaza in 2005. On the contrary — each and every one of them has been leveraged by Israel as a tool of pressure, cajolement, and punishment.

Yes, Israel faces legitimate security concerns, but even according to the argument that it needs to maintain control for security reasons, control should translate into responsibility. Unfortunately, it doesn’t. For example, Israel reserves the right to control Gaza’s crossings, but doesn’t feel any obligation to ensure that they stay open or function to their full capacity.

Last summer, in response to incendiary objects being launched from Gaza, Israel closed Gaza’s only commercial crossing, leading to a fuel shortage and shutdown of the strip’s power plant. Millions of people living through a pandemic struggled with even longer power outages than usual, affecting hospitals, businesses, and homes. Since last March, it has restricted travel between Gaza and Israel and the West Bank to an even greater degree than before. Despite fluctuations in its internal regulations to control the spread of the virus, its “coronavirus closure” on Gaza has gone virtually unchanged. Israel doesn’t feel any duty to facilitate access for Palestinians in Gaza, and when it does, it does so in what it sees as an act of charity.

Palestinians wearing face masks walk in a main street in Rafah, Gaza on November 19, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
Palestinians wearing face masks walk in a main street in Rafah, Gaza on November 19, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The reality of Israel’s decades-long relationship with Gaza is a microcosm and the most extreme expression of Israel’s relationship with the occupied Palestinian territory as a whole. Even in the West Bank, where settlements sit alongside Palestinian communities, where rockets aren’t fired, and where there is no excuse of a Rafah Crossing with Egypt (which is anyway closed and doesn’t lead to Gaza’s main commercial markets), Israel denies its obligations to Palestinians, including now, the obligation to distribute the vaccine for COVID-19 equitably.

The Palestinian Authority is working with the World Health Organization and other international partners to try to secure doses of vaccines, while simultaneously calling on Israel to meet its obligations under international law to ensure the well-being of the 4.5 million Palestinians living under its military control in both Gaza and the West Bank. So far, Israel has agreed to transfer vaccines coming from abroad to the Palestinian territory, but refuses to provide them. Absurdly, teenagers and other young, healthy populations in Israel are receiving the vaccine before frontline medical workers, the elderly, and immunocompromised Palestinians living in close proximity.

It could be that the PA and its partners eventually manage to inoculate the Palestinian population, even if Israel continues to disavow its responsibility to provide the vaccine. Delaying the arrival of the vaccine for the elderly, at-risk and for medical staff necessarily means more suffering and death.

The PA and the Hamas de facto authority in Gaza must continue to struggle to provide for the needs of their people to the fullest extent possible in the current circumstances. They, too, bear obligations under the albeit broken doctrine of Oslo. But as the occupying power, Israel cannot transfer its responsibilities ­­— and most certainly not when it continues to undermine the ability of Palestinian authorities to fulfill theirs.

Meanwhile, Israel continues to cherry-pick the clauses that are convenient for maintaining control of the occupied territory without any accountability. The denial of vaccines is just the latest, and a particularly stark example of the deadly consequences of letting Israel get away with it.