The success of Israel’s response to Covid-19 with an effective vaccination programme is widely acknowledged. Israel is vaccinating 48% of its population of nine million in a period of nine weeks. The aim is to vaccinate 80% of the Israeli population by the end of May.
Israel has an impressive and effective health care system, which makes such an ambitious vaccination programme possible. But it is also the case that the Israeli government has struck a deal with Pfizer for early access to its vaccine in exchange for providing the company with anonymised data of vaccinated people, so that Pfizer can determine the effectiveness of its vaccine. It also has to be said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an election year, had agreed to pay Pfizer, in the words of a senior Israeli health official, “a little bit more” for the vaccine than other countries have paid. This has led to Israel having the highest vaccination rate of any country in the world.
But what about the 5.1m Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza? Here, the situation is very different. In the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs), there is no comprehensive vaccination programme. A modest supply of the Sputnik V vaccine from Russia has arrived and negotiations are being finalised with Pfizer and the United Nations.
A few weeks ago, Israel delivered 200 vaccines to Palestinian medical staff and 2,000 doses to the Palestinian Authority. Over the weekend, Israeli authorities committed to offering a vaccine to the 130,000 Palestinians with Israeli work permits. While this is a step in the right direction, there is much more that should be done.
Israel argues that as health care is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority under the Oslo Agreements, it is not the responsibility of Israel to ensure the vaccination of Palestinians. But this is not the view of Labour or the international community. Even the British government has stated, in answer to a written parliamentary question from myself: “Under International Humanitarian Law, Israel, as the occupying power, has the duty of ensuring and maintaining public health in the OPTs to the fullest extent of the means available and with the co-operation of the local authorities”.
Recently, the Israeli government suspended its controversial plan to use coronavirus vaccines to win allies abroad. Now is surely the time for Israel to recognise that it is in the best interest of Israelis for the Palestinians to have a comprehensive vaccine programme. There is close contact between Israelis and Palestinians in many spheres of everyday life. A joint vaccination programme that begins with those with work permits should be extended to all Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as soon as possible.
If Israel is to defeat Covid-19 in Israel, then Palestinians must be vaccinated as well. I hope that this can become a reality. There is a moral imperative for this to happen. Palestinians and Israelis face a common enemy and they must defeat it together.