Let’s make it short before we make it a little longer: there is very little evidence to support the common argument that Israel is obligated to provide the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza with COVID-19 vaccines. Most of those who voice such arguments belong to one of three groups: the ignorant, the biased, or the ignorant-biased.
In previous weeks, newspapers around the world have rightly covered Israel’s rapid race to vaccinate its population. Israel’s government has had more than its fair share of failings and deficiencies during the pandemic, but the vaccinate-Israel operation is truly remarkable. Israel is a world leader in vaccinations. No doubt, a source for some envy.
In many of the aforementioned stories, there was a repeated argument that Israel is under an obligation — which it is not meeting — to vaccinate the Palestinians as well as the Israelis. Some stories just state this argument matter of factly; others include a rebuke of Israel’s supposed neglect; still others dedicate their story solely to this proclaimed moral deficiency. How can Israel be so cold-hearted as to ignore the plight of its neighbors? Why would it not take responsibility for a population under its control?
The arguments are all over the place. The words are often grandiose. “Vaccine apartheid,” “ethical concern,” “humanitarian responsibility.” Palestinian writers slam Israel. Jewish American writers agonize over the supposed travesty. But to make things more orderly, let’s consider four main categories of complaints: the legal, the image-related, the health-related and the moral.
The legal: Israel is under no legal obligation to hand its vaccine to other authorities. The Palestinians have their own governments (West Bank and Gaza); these governments have health ministries; these health ministries negotiated and agreed to import vaccines from other countries. In the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians assumed responsibility for health services. So, Israel is merely obliged to let the Palestinians get the vaccines they purchase, use their own ministries, pay with their own budget and distribute according to their own priorities. Israel does not run Palestinian hospitals, does not vaccinate young Palestinians against smallpox, does not deliver Palestinian babies. I don’t remember anyone complaining about that. And for a good reason: that isn’t Israel’s job.
But Israel is an “occupier,” cry the pundits. Also not exactly true. Israel evacuated Gaza more than a dozen years ago. It allowed the establishment of a Palestinian Authority almost thirty years ago. That the Palestinians who live in certain territories are not fully free to do as they wish is undeniable. But calling Israel an “occupier” is mostly used more as a slogan than a nuanced description of a complicated situation. One of the areas in which Israel is no longer an occupier is health services. The Palestinians are free to handle their health matters the way they see fit. And if Israel does a better job than they do in handling vaccines — well, so does Singapore, so does Japan, so do many other countries (the United States not among them).
Calling Israel an “occupier” is more of a slogan than a nuanced description of a complicated situation.
Image: Yes, it’d boost Israel’s image to vaccinate all Palestinians. It’d also boost Israel’s image to vaccinate the whole world. Whether such a boost is worthy of the price can merit a discussion — when Israel is done fulfilling its main obligation, to vaccinate its own citizens.
Health-related considerations: Since the Palestinians live in proximity and often mix with Israelis, it is better for Israel to have them as a healthy population. Vaccinating all Palestinians would make Israel itself a safer place. Can anyone argue with that? No. Does this mean Israel must vaccinate all Palestinians? No. It is for Israel’s authorities to weigh the pros and cons of funding vaccinations for the Palestinians and make a decision.
The moral argument: How can Israel vaccinate itself and not its neighbors? Good question. How can the United States vaccinate itself and not Mexico? How can Egypt vaccinate itself and not Sudan? How can any country vaccinate itself when other countries still suffer? The answer is: that’s the point of having different countries, governments and authorities for different populations. True, the authority that governs health issues for the Palestinians is not as agile and advanced as the one doing this for Israelis. Then again, Belgium has a better system than Libya’s, and I didn’t see anyone suggesting that Belgium is under a moral obligation to vaccinate all Libyans.
To circle back and make it short again: It is fine to oppose Israel’s policy vis à vis the Palestinians. It is fine to argue that Israel must pull out of the West Bank, or dismantle settlements, or be more ready to compromise, or unilaterally withdraw, or what have you. But using COVID-19 to portray Israel as a country whose conduct is illegal or immoral is no more than that of ignorance, or bias or, in more than a few cases, both.