Israel/OPT: UN experts call on Israel to ensure equal access to COVID-19 vaccines for Palestinians
14 January 2021
GENEVA (14 January 2021) – UN human rights experts* today called on Israel, the occupying power, to ensure swift and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines for the Palestinian people under occupation.
“Israel’s roll-out of its vaccination programme against the COVID-19 pandemic for its citizens has been impressive. In this early stage of the worldwide inoculation programme, Israel has delivered the vaccines to a higher percentage of its citizens than any other country,” the experts said. “We understand that Palestinians with resident status in occupied East Jerusalem have been offered the vaccines by Israel.
“However, Israel has not ensured that Palestinians under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza will have any near-future access to the available vaccines. The COVID-19 pandemic has been ravaging the West Bank and Gaza in recent months, and has fractured an already badly under-resourced Palestinian health care system. We are particularly concerned about the deteriorating health situation in Gaza, which suffers from a 13-year-old blockade, serious water and electricity shortages, and endemic poverty and unemployment.”
The UN experts said available information indicates that COVID-19 vaccines – which have been ordered separately by the Palestinian Authority – may not be delivered en masse to the West Bank and Gaza for many weeks.
“This means that more than 4.5 million Palestinians will remain unprotected and exposed to Covid-19, while Israeli citizens living near and among them – including the Israeli settler population – will be vaccinated. Morally and legally, this differential access to necessary health care in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century is unacceptable.”
According to the World Health Organization, more than 160,000 Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territory have tested positive for the coronavirus since March 2020, with more than 1,700 deaths related to COVID-19. Infections and deaths have been rising steadily in recent weeks.
The experts said that as the occupying power, Israel is required under the Fourth Geneva Convention, “to the fullest extent of the means available to it”, to maintain health services in the occupied territory. Article 56 requires Israel to adopt and apply “the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” in cooperation with national and local authorities.
If the protected population is inadequately supplied, the occupying power is required under the Convention to facilitate relief schemes “by all means at its disposal”. Even if relief consignments, including ‘medical supplies’, are provided by others, Article 60 states that such consignments “shall in no way relieve the occupying power of any of its responsibilities” for health care to the protected population.
“The right to health is also a fundamental human rights issue,” the experts said. “International human rights law, which applies in full to the occupied Palestinian territory, stipulates that everyone enjoys the right to ‘the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health’. The denial of an equal access to health care, such as on the basis of ethnicity or race, is discriminatory and unlawful.”
They said some Israeli commentators have justified the differential treatment on the grounds that the 1995 Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, an integral part of the Oslo Accords, provides that the Palestinian Authority would assume the responsibility for health care in the Palestinian territory, including for vaccinations. The experts said that the Oslo Accords must be interpreted and applied consistent with international law, and cannot derogate from its broad protections. The ultimate responsibility for health services remains with the occupying power until the occupation has fully and finally ended.
The experts noted that, during the 1991 Gulf War, the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the Israeli military commander to distribute gas masks to Palestinians under occupation on the same basis as it had delivered masks to all Israelis. In a ruling that resonates today, the Court stated that:
“the military commander should treat everybody with equality. He must not discriminate between residents. Once the military commander came to the conclusion that protective kits should be distributed to the Jewish residents of the area, he should also distribute kits to the Arab residents.”
The human rights experts also called on the Palestinian Authority and the de facto administration in Gaza to cooperate with Israel in the implementation of a comprehensive vaccination programme for the Palestinians in the occupied territory.
“It will only be through the sustained effort by all the governing authorities with the common goal of a comprehensive vaccination program which reaches everyone between the Jordan and the Mediterranean on the basis of equality and best-practices that the prospect for the defeat of the pandemic will be possible.”
As well, the experts expressed concern that the Israeli Prison Service has been instructed by the Israeli Public Security Ministry not to vaccinate Palestinian security prisoners. They noted that Israeli health authorities had previously given instructions that all prisoners in Israeli custody were to be given a priority for vaccinations, given the high risk of infection among inmates.
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