Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been the best in the world so far.
But occupied Palestinians have mostly been excluded from the country’s efforts.
One student who was denied a shot last month helped ensure vaccines for her fellow Palestinian students.
It takes graduate student Nadiah Sabaneh five hours to travel from her home in the Northern West Bank to her university in Tel Aviv. She has to arrange transportation, brace the weather, and pass through three military checkpoints to reach her campus.
But she didn’t mind the rain-drenched journey to Tel Aviv University on February 16. Her trouble, she thought, would all be worth it when she reached the school’s campus-wide vaccination drive and finally received her first COVID-19 shot, she told Insider.
Once she arrived, she took a number and joined the line, patiently waiting for her turn to receive a vaccine for the virus that put her mother in the ICU.
Sabaneh said she checked with university officials before making the trip, confirming she, too, would be eligible for a vaccine as part of the university’s effort to inoculate the entire campus community before returning to in-person instruction in the spring. Though some of her friends and family members had chided her for inquiring, she had been assured her expedition would result in a shot.
When Sabaneh reached the front of the line, she said a volunteer health official asked for her Identity Number – the government identification document granted to all Israeli citizens at birth. The official needed her number, or proof of Israeli insurance, anything really, to log her into the system.
But Sabaneh had no number, nor insurance to give, because despite living in a territory occupied by Israeli military forces, Sabaneh is not Israeli. She is Palestinian. And because she is Palestinian, she said she was turned away and denied a vaccine that day.
Sabaneh said she watched from the side of the room as professors, students, janitors, and employees of diverse backgrounds all received the shot with ease. Despite numerous attempts by university officials to amend the situation, Sabaneh said it became clear no exceptions could be made. She had to return home, unvaccinated; the disappointing culmination of what she said was a “painful experience.”
“I want equity and equality,” Sabaneh said. “I earned this right to be vaccinated just like any student.”
After six hours of waiting, Sabaneh said she finally left. It was getting dark and she had to get home through the checkpoints before they closed.
Though her situation has since been rectified, it is emblematic of Israel’s controversial vaccination efforts thus far; superb success in inoculating its own citizens and a begrudging resistance toward doing the same for Palestinians.
The inequity has prompted a global debate over whether Israel has an obligation as an occupying power to vaccinate Palestinian people.
The vaccination process
Sabaneh’s story is par for the course, according to Omar Shakir, Human Rights Watch director for Israel and Palestine.
“Israel’s vaccine rollout sums up the character of its rule,” Shakir told Insider. “It has prioritized in the West Bank vaccinating Jewish Israelis but not Palestinians who in some cases live on the other side of the street.”
The country’s inoculation efforts thus far have been the best in the world: Nearly 60% of the country’s population over 16 has already received at least one shot and more than 46% have received both, according to Time.
Dr. Asher Salmon, head of international relations at Israel’s Ministry of Health, told Insider the nation’s success has been rooted in a number of factors: integration between IT systems, logistic preparedness, the small size of the country, and consistent supply.
Israel has insisted its priority must be in vaccinating its own population, though officials said in January they would consider sharing more supplies with Palestinians at some point.
Now, after a thorny first few months, Israel has slowly begun including some sects of the Palestinian population in the country’s vaccination efforts.
“We have both a humanitarian interest as well as public health interest in ensuring that the Palestinian population is fully vaccinated as soon as possible and anticipate that they will be the first regional health system to fully vaccinate after Israel,” Salmon said.
Nearly three million Palestinians reside in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and another two million live in Israeli-occupied Gaza. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live amongst Palestinians in the West Bank – most of whom have already been inoculated.
The country announced in early March it would begin offering vaccines to approximately 100,000 Palestinian day laborers who cross into Israel at occupied checkpoints each day – a move Salmon said the country has made “despite the fact that the Palestinian Authority Health System is responsible for their healthcare and vaccinations.”
But Shakir, along with various international rights groups, argue that Israel has a legal responsibility to extend its vaccination efforts to the Palestinian people who live in the West Bank and Gaza, especially given the country’s plentiful resources and apparent ability to do so.
Israel has set a historical precedent for including Palestinian people in public health measures
In the face of a possible Iraqi chemical attack on Israel in the early 1990s, the country provided gas masks to all Israelis, including Israeli settlers in the West Bank, Shakir said. The Israeli Supreme Court then ruled that masks must also be provided to Palestinians living under Israeli rule.
“So in fact there aren’t only ample examples from other occupations, but even in Israel itself,” Shakir said. “Decades ago the Israeli Supreme Court ordered that in the face of a public health concern there should be no discrimination between two people living under the government’s rule.”
Israel in turn, argues the Palestinian Authority assumed control of its people’s healthcare when they signed the Oslo Accords – a pair of landmark agreements between the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organization – in the 1990s.
However, Shakir said, “Failure to vaccinate Palestinians not only falls afoul of Israel’s duties under international humanitarian law as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention, but it also falls afoul of international human rights law and prohibition of discrimination.”
On March 17, the Palestinian Authority received its first batch of vaccines from the COVAX sharing initiative, a global vaccination drive launched by the World Health Organization. Workers arrange boxes of COVID-19 vaccines to be kept at the Palestinian Authority’s storage facility in Salem village, east of the West Bank city of Nablus, March 17, 2021. Xinhua/Ayman Nobani via Getty Images
The Palestinian Health Ministry began administering the first COVAX doses to health care workers and elderly people living in the West Bank and Gaza earlier this week, ABC News reported. The government told Al Jazeera they hope to cover about 20% of Palestinian people with the COVAX vaccines.
Palestinian officials have faced growing criticism from their own people in recent weeks, amid accusations that government officials have been prioritizing vaccines for their friends and family.
Shakir said the authority’s unequal distribution is “deeply disappointing” and reflective of the Palestinian Authority’s role in the suffering of Palestinian people.
“To receive only crumbs and then to use those crumbs for themselves and their cronies…reflects a reality where the Palestinian Authority is deeply complicit in the underlying suffering of the Palestinian population,” Shakir said.
International criticism over Israel’s exclusion of Palestinians has been mounting
Public pressure may have played a role in the conclusion to Sabaneh’s story. Whether it was the media coverage of her situation in multiple local outlets or the efforts of dedicated university officials that helped turn the tide, Sabaneh finally got her first shot on March 9.
Mere minutes before a mainstream media outlet covering her story was set to publish, Sabaneh said the Israeli Health Ministry changed its policy regarding Palestinian students at Israeli universities. Sabaneh, as well as her nine fellow Palestinian university students, would be inoculated.
Dr. Salmon from the Health Ministry told Insider the agency had “already assessed the matter of Palestinian students in Israeli Universities and…currently have made vaccinations available to them as well,” in a March 10 email.
Sabaneh said she doesn’t particularly care what the driving reason behind the policy change was – she’s just pleased she and her fellow Palestinian students will be vaccinated like all their peers.
“I’m happy that this is the end result whether [I] was the cause or not,” Sabaneh said. “I’m glad we got our entitled right.”