You are probably reading this blog from the comfort of your own home, maybe you are sitting on your couch, bed, desk, or if you are blessed with lovely weather, you might be reading this from your garden. Today, many of us complain about being stuck in our houses during the lockdown, but we forget how lucky we are to have a home. Therefore, I want you to look around you when you are having dinner tonight with your family, with your favourite dishes on the table and your oldest family members’ photos on the wall, to know how privileged you are to have your family around you in your homeland.
Unfortunately, many Palestinians were expelled from their homes hile they were having dinner in peace back in 1947 because of the Israeli attack on their property. Palestinians have left all the things that they love behind them not knowing it would be more than 73 years before they could return. Some have lived and died as refugees around the world, dreaming about the day they would be able to have dinner at the same table with the same view of the orange trees in the backyard again. The Nakba in 1947 never ended for Palestinians up until now with the same settler-colonial regime that practices occupation and apartheid with a modern-day example of the displacement of Palestinians in Sheikh Jarrah.
This blog will discuss the varying degrees of marginalising laws and policies that Palestinians face in their host countries and occupied Palestine (Gaza Strip and West Bank) and consider the impact of COVID-19 on Palestinian refugees, through assessing the international responsibility towards Palestinian refugees.
Today there are over 7 million Palestinian refugees, many originating from Israel’s occupation of Palestine for 73 years, displacing Palestinians from their homeland in 1947-1949. Most Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and occupied Palestine. A socio-economic survey of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon conducted by the American University of Beirut indicated that camp residents are especially prone to ill- health, primarily due to heightened poverty levels and the lack of adequate water, sanitation, hygiene, and health infrastructure.
Many of us have the privilege of decision and autonomy as to whether to take the COVID-19 vaccine or not when available. However, for Palestinian refugees, the issue is not when to take it but rather whether the vaccine would actually be available to them. It is for the international community to ensure the vaccinations are available to refugees worldwide, undermining Palestinian refugees’ autonomy.
While COVID-19 threatens Palestinian refugees in Gaza, Israel continues to deny that it has any responsibility concerning the provisions of vaccines, despite the inaccuracy of this under International Human Rights Law. According to Article 43 of the Hague Resolutions 1907, “the occupying authority shall take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety.” In negating their responsibility to facilitate the vaccination of Palestinian refugees, Israel is contravening these obligations. Despite Israel claiming that shortages of vaccines make it impossible for them to extend this vaccination process to Palestinian refugees, this seems questionable at best since Israel is carrying out one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns according to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s words, with nearly two million Israelis having already received the first dose.
Israel is obliged to vaccinate those in their vicinity under International Law and Israeli Public Law concerning the occupied territories. Eyal Benvenisti from ‘Just Security Organisation’ argued that the Israeli Supreme Court had recognised this obligation in the 1991 Gulf War. He referred to the case of HCJ Murcus v. Minister of Defense when the fear of a chemical attack by Iraq prompted gas masks to be issued to all Israelis; the Israeli Supreme Court ordered the military commander to distribute similar kits to the Palestinian population. This situation is very similar to what Palestinians are facing during the war against COVID-19. The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled in the case of HCJ Albassiuni Ahmed v. The Prime Minister in 2008 that Israel has a “duty to ensure the safety of the civilian population in Gaza, as well as the protection of its dignity and basic rights.”
Sadly, Aljazeera News has confirmed that even when the Palestinian authorities were able to obtain the vaccine, which is challenging due to a lack of funds, Israeli authorities denied the entry of 2,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine for front-line medical workers at the Gaza strip. Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem stated that “Israel’s move marked a real crime and a violation of all International Laws and Humanitarian standards.”
According to the Independent, Israel argued that 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. However, this is not the view of the international community. For example, the British government has stated in answer to a written parliamentary question by Wayne David that “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.”
Moreover, according to the Independent, the Deputy Health Minister of Israel says they will “consider helping the Palestinian Authority if it has enough vaccines.” This is a strange and unfortunate statement because providing the vaccine to Palestinians is not a choice for Israel, nor will it be a benevolent act that should be applauded if Israel does assist the Palestinian Authority with vaccines. Israel is obliged to do so as Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention imposes a duty on Israel to provide healthcare goods where local resources are insufficient and adopt “prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.” According to the legal adviser from ICRC Alexander Breitegger, such measures compromise the distribution of medicines and vaccines, the establishment of stocks and medical supplies’ including vaccines’, or the dispatch of medical teams to administer vaccinations in areas where epidemics have broken out.
Clearly, Israel is ignoring its obligations to vaccinate those beyond its population, rendering its “successful” vaccination rates that do not include Palestinians a shameful illustration of Israel’s complete disregard for Palestinian lives.
Not only that, on May 18, 2021, Israel’s strikes damaged the only COVID testing centre in Gaza. Middle East Eye reported that the facility was destroyed after a nearby residential building was struck, forcing testing to be suspended. The rate of positive coronavirus tests in Gaza has been among the highest in the world, at 28 percent. Last week UN and WHO officials in Gaza told The New York Times they feared a surge in cases resulting from civilians having to cram into shelters to avoid death. All vaccinations had stopped when hostilities broke out, and any vaccine supplies headed to the territory had been delayed by the closure of Gaza’s border crossings. This damage has only left Gaza to deal with severe shortages of medical supplies and a ruthless second wave of coronavirus.
In the end, remember that your generous donations, support, and help could change a refugee’s life. Therefore, if you would like to help Palestinians living under occupation and as refugees to fight COVID-19, I have provided you with a link to donate to help respond to the medicine shortages in the occupied Palestinian territory through Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP). MAP is an organisation that aims to provide immediate aid to those in great need while also developing local capacity and skills to ensure the long-term development of the Palestinian healthcare system.
The link for donations: https://www.map.org.uk