“We are all in this together”, our politicians love to emphasise in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. Except, that is, if you are a Palestinian living under Israeli occupation.
On 24 January, Israel’s minister of health, Yuli Edelstein, boasted to the BBC that Israel leads the world in the vaccination of its citizens. In a campaign begun on 20 December, the Israeli health ministry intends to vaccinate fully 5.2 million of its 9 million citizens by the end of March. Yet none of the stateless Palestinians living in the West Bank or besieged Gaza Strip have received a single dose of the vaccine. And, outside of annexed East Jerusalem, Israeli health authorities have no plans to distribute the vaccine in the occupied Palestinian territories.
When quizzed by BBC journalist Andrew Marr as to why Palestinians were being denied the vaccine, Edelstein callously responded that Israel has no legal obligation to provide it. “As far as vaccination is concerned”, he told Marr, “I think it is Israel's obligation first and foremost to its citizens—they pay taxes for that, don’t they?”
If Marr was anything other than a supine BBC journalist, he might have probed further on this issue. Palestinians living under occupation are forced to pay taxes directly to Israel, despite Israel’s claim that they exercise self-government. And, as an occupying power, Israel is legally obliged to provide food and medical care to the population under its occupation.
According to the World Health Organisation, more than 175,000 Palestinians have been infected with COVID-19, resulting in nearly 2,000 deaths. Palestinian hospitals are currently overrun, with more than 100 Palestinians who have tested positive hospitalised in intensive-care units.
The besieged Gaza Strip surpassed 50,000 infections on 26 January, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health. With Israel preventing the import of essential medical equipment into Gaza, the health system is on the brink of collapse.
Furthermore, 227 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails have been infected by the virus over the last year—nearly an entire half of the Palestinians in Israeli custody. Yet Israel’s internal security minister, Amir Ohana, has directed Israeli health authorities not to vaccinate Palestinian prisoners.
It would be hard to find a clearer textbook example of apartheid. Comparison between the oppressive and racist policies of Israel’s colonial-settler state and those of former apartheid South Africa is nothing new.
In 1961, South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd dismissed Israeli criticism of South African apartheid at the United Nations, telling delegates: “Israel is not consistent in its new anti-apartheid attitude ... they took Israel away from the Arabs after the Arabs lived there for a thousand years. In that, I agree with them. Israel, like South Africa, is an apartheid state”.
In 2007, UN special rapporteur John Dugard concluded that “elements of the occupation constitute forms of colonialism and of apartheid”. In a subsequent study commissioned by the Human Sciences Research Council, Palestinian and South African scholars found that Israel was indeed committing the crime of apartheid.
A decade later, another UN special rapporteur, Richard Falk, reached similar conclusions. Falk co-authored a report commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) that accused Israel of “policies and practices that constitute the crime of apartheid” against the Palestinian people.
According to the ESCWA report, Israel is guilty of pursuing a policy of “strategic fragmentation” in order “to stabilise the Israeli regime of racial domination over the Palestinians and to weaken the will and capacity of the Palestinian people to mount a unified and effective resistance”.
Predictably, Israeli UN ambassador Danny Danon denounced the report as an “attempt to smear and falsely label the only true democracy in the Middle East by creating a false analogy”. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres swiftly capitulated to US pressure to withdraw the report, promptly scrubbing it from the UN website.
Yet a concerted campaign by powerful apologists for Israeli apartheid to smear their critics as “anti-Semitic” has failed to turn public opinion in Israel’s favour.
Last month Israeli human right organisation B’Tselem accused Israel of “advancing and perpetuating the supremacy of one group—Jews—over another—Palestinians”. Recognising that Israel has no intention of implementing a two-state solution, B’Tselem executive director Hagai El-Ad argued, “One of the key points in our analysis is that this is a single geopolitical area ruled by one government ...This is not democracy plus occupation. This is apartheid between the river and the sea”.
The B’Tselem report points out that while approximately 7 million Jews and 7 million Palestinians live under a single system of Israeli control, Israel has attempted to destroy a Palestinian national identity by dividing Palestinians into four subordinate groups, each with “a different package of rights”. At the bottom of the heap are nearly 2 million Palestinians living in Gaza subject to an Israeli blockade that gives Israel “effective control”.
In the next tier are 2.7 million Palestinian “subjects” in the West Bank, who live in “dozens of disconnected enclaves, under rigid military rule and without political rights”. The limited “self-rule” granted to Palestinians under the Oslo Accords has created a Palestinian Authority that “is still subordinate to Israel and can only exercise its limited powers with Israel’s consent”.
Three hundred and fifty thousand Palestinians living in East Jerusalem constitute the third tier, having been given residency status in territory illegally annexed by Israel. In the fourth tier are approximately one million Palestinian citizens of Israel, who have been granted Israeli citizenship, but remain second-class citizens living under discriminatory laws that deny them freedom of movement and political expression.
Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and numerous other human rights organisations have demanded Israel give Palestinians access to the vaccine.
“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian”, stated Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine director at Human Rights Watch, on 17 January. “Everyone in the same territory should have equitable access to the vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity.”
However, those with access to the vaccine living “on one side of the street” (or rather within the walled Israeli settlements that increasingly dominate the West Bank landscape) are no ordinary citizens who happen to have a different ethnicity to indigenous Palestinians. They are settlers on the front line of Israel’s brutal regime of colonisation.
Israel is not only an apartheid state; it’s also a colonial-settler regime. And it is weaponising COVID-19 to inflict further suffering and death on the Palestinians.