Israel's expiring vaccines for Palestinians is medical apartheid in action

Israel's expiring vaccines for Palestinians is medical apartheid in action
5 min read
25 Jun, 2021
Opinion: The expiring vaccines Israel offered to the PA reflect a cynical disregard for Palestinian lives that is entirely in keeping with the occupation, writes Muhammad Shehada.
The PA nixed the deal when it discovered the vaccines were to expire in less than 12 days [Getty]

Last Friday, Israel's new government, led by far-right Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, was widely celebrated after it announced the transfer of an initial 100,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine to the Palestinian Authority. It soon became clear, however, that the vaccines were too close to their expiry date to be useful. 

Israel's messaging about the vaccine transfer took on two entirely different tones. To the international community, Israel heavily documented and keenly promoted this rare occurrence as a major selfless act of charity to save Palestinian lives. Indeed Israel has been widely criticized for upholding medical apartheid when it comes to vaccinating people under its control.

Israel's alternate Prime Minister, Yair Lapid, insisted that this vaccine transfer showcases the new government's emphasis on cooperation "for the benefit of people in the region." Many optimistically took it as a sign of change in Israel's policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians under the Bennet-Lapid coalition.

To the Israeli public, however, the messaging about this vaccine deal was no different to that of Netanyahu's government. Israel placed a strong emphasis on this transfer being purely transactional; part of an exchange that servers Israel's interest to get rid of a pile of about-to-expire vaccines, and in turn receive new ones that were meant to reach the Palestinian Authority in September and October.

"Israel has been consistently refusing to fulfill its obligations under international law towards occupied Palestinians' basic right to health"

The PA quickly nixed the deal on Friday after it discovered the vaccines were to expire in less than 12 days much sooner than the agreed expiry date of July-August. Israel hastened to claim the PA knew about the expiration dates when it agreed, and the PA has created an independent committee to investigate the botched deal.

The PA was widely blamed for this "dispute," as The New York Times called it. But with a Palestinian Health sector severely compromised by Israel's occupation, the PA just doesn't have the logistics and personpower to administer those doses before they expire. In addition, Israel chose to omit in its marketing of the deal is that it stipulated the blockaded Gaza Strip should not receive any of the doses, despite it being hit harder by the pandemic.

Of course, any vaccine hesitancy among Palestinians would have been dramatically exacerbated when those doses are coming from their belligerent occupier.

Israel's humiliation of the PA with the almost expired jabs speaks of its cynicism and disregard for our lives. And the wider context attests to this:

While Israel has been consistently refusing to fulfil its obligations under international law towards occupied Palestinians' basic right to health, it has been illegally withholding $180 million from the PA's tax revenues since last December, which undermined the PA's ability to buy vaccines earlier on its own.

During its 2014 "Protective Edge" war on Gaza, Israel bombed or destroyed several hospitals, and in the 2021 "Guardians of the Wall" war, Israel's airstrikes put Gaza's sole Covid lab out of action.

Israel continues to impose restrictions on Gaza that have crippled its health sector, and in the West Bank, Israeli forces frequently raid Palestinian hospitals at will, even firing stun grenades and tear gas inside.

At the same time, Palestinian health needs have been a very lucrative business for Israel's medical sector. Annually, Israel charges the PA $100 million, approximately 20 percent of the PA's health budget, for treating Palestinian patients, including those maimed or injured by Israel's army.

The latest vaccine saga shows how Israel cynically treats the occupied territories as its backyard, where it can exploit Palestinian needs to its advantage; to dispose of redundant useless doses, market its actions as a generous act of charity, and receive new Pfizer doses that Palestinians had bought.

"The latest vaccine saga shows how Israel cynically treats the occupied territories as its back yard; where it can exploit Palestinian needs to its own advantage"

If this vaccine exchange indicates anything, it should be that Israel had from the very beginning the ability to vaccinate all Palestinians under its occupation, as it had it purchased 24 million doses - 10 million AstraZeneca, 8 million Pfizer, and 6 million Moderna.

Instead, Netanyahu's government preferred that the vaccines expire and go to waste, rather than go to the Palestinians under his military's rule. And now, Bennet's government thinks it can put on a humanitarian face by trading with us the vaccines Netanyahu let expire, as if Palestinians can't read expiration dates.

This falls into a pattern of mainly performative gestures that the Lapid-Bennet government has taken since it assumed office to bolster its public image abroad and mend relations with America's Democratic party. This includes announcing an easing of Gaza's siege that turned out to be nominal and insignificant, or taking pride in having Arabs in their governing coalition while working to renew a discriminatory law that bans Palestinian family reunification.

Some have pointed out that Israel's new Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, who comes from the leftist Meretz party, is a decent politician who opposed both Trump's "Deal of the Century" and Netanyahu's annexation.

But at the very least, Horowitz could have either refrained from giving the PA doses that expired too soon, offered those doses as a sign of good faith with nothing in return, or confined the exchange to doses with further expiration dates.

Indeed, PR stunts or occasional crumbs of compassion that Israel condescendingly throws our way cannot in any way substitute for its legal and moral obligations as the occupying power in the Palestinian territories.

Muhammad Shehada is a Palestinian writer and analyst from Gaza and EU Affairs Manager at Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.

Follow him on Twitter: @muhammadshehad2

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.