COVID-19 vaccine disparity in Israel and Palestine

Since the middle of November, COVID-19 cases have hit record-highs for the pandemic across the world. Countries around the world are pushing to get healthcare workers and the general population vaccinated to ease the burden of increased cases on health systems, economies, and citizens. The logistics of obtaining and delivering the vaccine have proved a slow, arduous task in many countries across the world. 

However, Israel has reported success in rapidly vaccinating health care workers and the general population. At the end of December and early January, Israel reported that it had administered vaccines to around 17% of the population. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel has secured enough vaccines to have all Israeli citizens vaccinated by March 16th of this year. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has declared, “We will be the first country to emerge from the coronavirus. We will vaccinate all relevant populations and anyone who wants to can be vaccinated.” He went on to say that Israel will be a “model-nation” for how to exit the coronavirus.

A man walks down the street during the Bnei-Brak Coronavirus shutdown in Israel
Source: Amir Appel, Flickr

A significant portion of Israel’s borders is made up of 5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Israelis within the defined borders of the state number at 8 million, making Palestineans comprise 39% of the population. Israel occupies the West Bank, meaning most of the territory is under the control of the Israeli government. Gaza Strip has been blockaded, and the Israeli government controls all resources entering and exiting the area. However, Israel has no plans to vaccinate any Palestinians even though they are inoculating residents living in Jewish settlements in occupied territory. They sight the Oslo Peace Accords from the 1990s, saying that Palestine is responsible for their own healthcare. So far, the only Palestinians that have received any vaccines are those living in East Jerusalem, since they have Israeli residency and access to Israeli healthcare. 

A view of the West Bank, Palestine
Source: archer10 (Dennis), Creative Commons

Within Israeli territory, Palestinians have carried the higher burden of COVID-19 cases and deaths per capita. Of the people who get COVID-19 in Palestine, 1.1% will die from the disease. In Israel, this number is 0.7% due to better access to higher quality healthcare. Israel has begun to give vaccines to medics, nurses, and doctors working in the 6 Palestinian hospitals, but they were not available until the past few weeks. Vaccines are still unavailable to Palestinians with high-risk health conditions and those over 65, even though all Israelis over 40 are now eligible. 

A woman gets her first COVID-19 vaccine
Source: Joint Base San Antonio Public Affairs, Flickr

The human rights body of the United Nations has released a statement saying that it is Israel’s responsibility as an occupying power to provide equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. There has been a huge inequality in vaccine distribution between Israel and Palestine, and the people of Palestine need vaccinations like those in the occupying power of Palestine. 

UPDATE (March 29, 2021):  According to BBC News, in early March, Israel decided to start offering the vaccine to the some 130,000 Palestinians living in occupied East Jerusalem or coming to work in Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In other parts of the West Bank and in Gaza, the situation continues to be very bleak – infections are rising, new restrictions are being imposed, and vaccination efforts have been much slower to start. The Palestinian authorities have begun administering vaccines supplied under the international Covax vaccine-sharing scheme, which is intended to help poorer countries access supplies, and the UAE has donated 20,000 doses of the Russian-made vaccine to residents of Gaza. There is some argument over who is responsible for vaccinating Palestinians, with Israel pointing to the specification in the Oslo Accords stating that “Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of Health in the West bank and Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side, including the health insurance system.” On the other hand, the United Nations issued a statement saying that according to the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel (the occupying power) is “responsible for providing equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.” In any case, now that the vaccine is in greater supply, Israel has begun including Palestinians with work permits in the vaccine rollout.

Who’s Afraid of BDS?

A photo of the Wailing Wall and al-Asqa mosque in Jerusalem.
The wailing wall and al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. Source: Tina Kempin Reuter

On 15 August 2019, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a travel ban on two US Congresswomen, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar.  His decision was a surprising reversal from a mere month ago, when both PM Netanyahu and Israeli’s Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, confirmed that Reps. Tlaib and Omar would be allowed into Israel “out of respect for the US Congress and the great alliance between Israel and America.”  While the final catalyst for this reversal is credited to the machinations of US President Donald Trump, the primary cause for the travel ban, according to PM Netanyahu, is Reps. Tlaib’s and Omar’s support for the transnational Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement, a concerted effort to compel the State of Israel to revolutionize how it works with Palestinians within and around Israel’s borders.  This post aims to unpack the historical and cultural context of the BDS Movement, analyze the fault lines within the BDS Movement, and suggest ways for BDS to mend these divides while sharpening its effectiveness in advocating for the human rights of Palestinians.

Originating the Boycott, Divestment, & Sanctions (BDS) Movement

From 31 August to 7 September 2001, the United Nations held the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Related Intolerance (WCAR, also called the Durban Conference, as it was held in Durban, South Africa), billed as “providing an opportunity for the world to engage, for the first time in the post-apartheid era, in a broad agenda to combat racism and related issues.”  Within this anti-racist, anti-apartheid ethos, world leaders sought to locate and eradicate large-scale structures bolstering racist ideology and marginalizing populations based off racial and ethnic identity.  Almost all states at the WCAR were in total agreement that Zionism, the political movement to establish and protect a wholly-Jewish nation, was indeed racist.  Many actors arguing against the ideology of Zionism claimed that, although the Jewish people have the right to create their own state, ethnic cleansing of the indigenous people (Palestinians) rendered the current form of Zionism a racist ideology.  It was at the Durban Conference that BDS finds its intellectual roots, as many Middle East / North African states (specifically, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Republic, and Yemen) agreed to utterly isolate Israel (economically, intellectually, culturally, politically) until Israel revolutionized its relationship with indigenous Palestinians.  Of course, calls for isolationism, itself a remnant of how the world treated South African during its apartheid practices, were eclipsed by the 9/11 attacks against the US a mere four days after the Durban Conference ended.  It was also at the Durban Conference that the “Red-Green” alliance was formed between radical leftist and Islamist groups, collectively impugning Israel’s treatment of indigenous Palestinians.

The intellectual seeds of BDS were planted, and two years later, the world would see the harvest.  On 8 December 2003, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) requested the International Court of Justice (ICJ) for an advisory opinion regarding the Israeli-built wall surrounding East Jerusalem, seeking to ascertain if the wall constituted a breach of international law (specifically the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949).  The ICJ (relying on oral and written testimony from over 50 UN Member States, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and the European Union – amongst others) declared the wall bisecting Jerusalem and the continuation of Israeli settlements (displacing indigenous Palestinians) indeed violated international humanitarian law.  The ICJ concluded their opinion, stating Israel should (a) cease construction on the wall and dismantle structures within the Occupied Palestinian Territory, (b) respect the right of the Palestinian people’s right to Self Determination (read this article for more information), and (c) pay reparations for costs incurred to the Palestinian people; furthermore, the ICJ contended that all State Parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention should ensure Israel complies with this advisory opinion.  While the advisory opinion alone was relatively toothless on the international stage (as, again, the US and Israel refused to comply with these stipulations), the ICJ’s decision kickstarted the eventual BDS movement two years later.

On 9 July 2005, over 150 Palestinian Civil Society Organizations (representing Palestinian refugees, Palestinians under occupation, and Arab citizens of Israel) signed an open letter to global civil society actors declaring their intent to boycott Israeli products, divesting business activities from working with Israel, and sanctioning groups continuing to aid the Israeli State.  The letter argues, in light of Israel’s refusal to adhere to the ICJ’s recommendation, settlements extending into East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank (see this article for a map of Palestine land loss since 1946) triggered the need for a transnational, nonviolent movement aimed at compelling the State of Israel to abide by the ICJ’s recommendation.  The letter, echoing the anti-apartheid boycott movement of the 1960s – 1990s, contends that all persons of conscience (including Israeli citizens and members of the Jewish faith worldwide) have a moral obligation to pressure those in power (e.g., business leaders, political decision-makers, and other persons of high influence) to forcefully condemn Israel’s maltreatment of Palestinian populations.  The three fundamental demands of the BDS movement of the State of Israel are as follows:

  1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall;
  2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
  3. Respecting, protecting, and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Per the BDS official website, the Movement boasts several consequences of its ongoing efforts, including:

  • A 46% drop in foreign direct investment in Israel in 2014
  • Israeli weapon manfacturers complaining of an export crisis due to “less desire for Israeli=made products”.
  • Refusals from major artists (such as Roger Waters from Pink Floyd, Faithless, Lauryn Hill, Brian, Eno, and Elvis Costello).
  • A formal recognition from the State of Israel that the BDS Movement presents a strategic threat to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Since its publication, the BDS movement has largely gained the most traction on college campuses (long understood to be a bastion of political activism).  Simultaneously, the BDS Movement has been associated with radical anti-Zionism, bordering on anti-Semitism.  This association has been the fodder of many political and civil society leaders and has crippled the efficacy of Palestinian Rights activists.

 

Peace activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti
Peace activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu with Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti. Source: Yazeed Kamaldien, Creative Commons

 

Critiques of BDS

Critiques of the BDS Movement fall into three broad categories: (1) issues surrounding its founder and leader, Omar Barghouti; (2) BDS’s opposition to the internationally-accepted Two-State Solution; and (3) accusations of antisemitic rhetoric and subsequent promotion of violence.

Founder of the BDS Movement and author of Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights, Omar Barghouti, quotes Richard Falk (former UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation on of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Occupied) early in his text, stating:

The recent developments in Gaza are especially disturbing because they express so vividly a deliberate intention on the part of Israel and its allies to subject an entire human community to life-endangering conditions of utmost cruelty… If ever the ethos of “a responsibility to protect”, recently adopted by the UN Security Council as the basis of “humanitarian intervention” is applicable, it would be to act now to start protecting the people of Gaza from further pain and suffering. (p. 36)

Falk levels a thoughtful critique of both Israel’s and the international community’s abdication of protecting the human rights of Palestinian individuals.  These critiques, shared by many in the global community, fall on deaf ears, for Barghouti has, in many respects, poisoned the well from which BDS-activists guzzle.  Barghouti has been viably accused of tax evasion (to the tune of 700 000 USD), vociferously argued against a potential two-state solution, lambasted Palestinian academic and cultural leaders from debating with their Israeli counterparts, and has been accused of espousing views suggesting the ‘human rights of Palestinians are more equal than the human rights of Israelis’.

Beyond the problematization of BDS’s Founder, other cultural and political forces call into question the endgame of the BDS Movement.  Former US Ambassador to Israel (2011 – 2017), Daniel B. Shapiro, recently argued in The Atlantic the BDS Movement “advocates the end of Israel, rather than the establishment of two states, and assigns as responsibility for the conflict, in all its historical complexity, to Israel alone”.  Other critics, such as the Anti-Defamation League (an international Jewish NGO) has formally classified the BDS Movement as antisemitic.  Australian politicians have noted pro-BDS protests feature acts of violence; British academics voted against Israeli boycotts, noting these boycotts constrict peaceful dialogue between Israeli intellectual leaders and the rest of the world; and American politicians note that BDS can empower antisemitism and undermine the lives and livelihoods of young Israeli scientists. Furthermore, symbolic of many global academics’ ambivalence towards the BDS Movement, philosopher Judith Butler suggests a third path: collaborating with intellectual and cultural Israelis without accepting funding from the Israeli State.  This move, Butler suggests, sidesteps the thorny issue of discrimination on the basis of nationality (e.g., refusing to work with Israeli academics simply wholly due to their Israeli citizenship) while still eschewing affiliation with the Israeli government.

Considering the complexity of the BDS Movement, with its goal of unshackling indigenous Palestinians and its questionable methods and leadership, I now pose the question: what lessons can transformational solidarity movements teach BDS, allowing it to deftly address its many criticisms and simultaneously bolster its efficacy to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians? 

 

A man holds a rainbow Pride protest sign with phrases including “End Israeli occupation”, “Queers for a free Palestine”, and “Fight against: racism, Islamophobia, homo/transphobia, antisemitism, apartheid”
“Queers for Palestine” by Magdalena, Creative Commons

Embracing Complexity within Transformational Solidarity Movements

Dr. Anne Garland Mahler, in her text From the Tricontinental to the Global South: Race, Radicalism, and Transnational Solidarity, alludes to an ideal form of solidarity movements; this form is defined by qualities such as transnationalism (e.g., a widening of solidarity membership to include sympathizers of many, seemingly incongruous nationalisms – such as Palestinian and Israeli), transracial (e.g., not only including diversity ethnicities, such as Jewish and Arab, but an antiracist alignment of said ethnicities), anti-neoliberal (e.g., rejecting the ‘built-in’ nature of inequalities along dimensions related to socioeconomic status, level of education, political access, and health), and horizontalist (e.g., eschewing rigid hierarchies of authority within an organization).  While her original analysis centers around the Tricontinental Solidarity Movement, a Cuban-borne political movement attempting to interlock methods and goals of liberation found within Asian, African, and Latin American peoples, leaders of the BDS Movement would do well to heed her call.

The BDS Movement, at base, aims to transform the lives of Palestinians – the endgame is to reduce violence, promote negative and positive peace, and provide the conditions within life that allow an individual and a people the resources and structures required to build harmony, enjoy prosperity, promote health, and protect equity.  Transformational movements fixate not only on the immediate tragedies of war and conflict, but they additionally fixate on the long-term situations giving rise to sustainable peace.  Mahler correctly locates a critical juncture within this equation – transformational movements must ally themselves with other, perhaps seemingly disparate, movements also aspiring for liberation.  This relational space of ally-ship is precisely where the BDS Movement should aim to stride.  These allies (and partners in transformational struggles) may include prominent Arab-Jewish transracial and Israeli-Palestinian transnational organizations.  These potential allies also include Neve Shalom / Wahat al-Salam (facilitating intentional encounters between Israeli and Palestinian groups), the Children of Abraham (emphasizing the spiritual and religious dimensions required of Israeli-Palestinian peace processes), the Alliance of Middle East Peace (a political lobbying coalition proposing legislation promoting peace in the MENA region), and Peace Oil (an for-profit company promoting economic interdependency between Arabs and Israelis).  Alliances between BDS and these organizations may increase accountability for ‘bad actors’ within the BDS Movement, demonstrate cooperation between Arab and Israelis (rather than domination or antagonism), and sidestep the maligned efforts of ‘spoilers’ within peacebuilding processes.

From a peace and human rights perspective, the BDS Movement should aspire to be one of solidarity – meaning its membership, supporters, and leaders coalesce their methods of transformation within three domains: (1) electoral democracy, (2) opposition, and (3) dialogue.  Specifically, global sympathizers of the BDS Movement should consider continuously voting for candidates and measures ultimately empowering peacebuilding between Israel and Palestine, utilizing nonviolent methods of protesting anti-peace individuals and organizations (boycotts, divestments, and sanctions are obvious examples here – what is missing is a clear focus on the definitive spoilers of peace) and finally, engaging in good-faith, long-term dialogue within their own ranks and between the BDS Movement and other allies and potential adversaries.

The Matter of Belonging

a picture of the Grand Canyon. It is a UNESCO site
Grand Canyon. Source: Alan Eng, Creative Commons

The United States formally withdrew from UNESCO last Thursday, followed shortly by Israel. The decision, called “a brave and moral decision” by Binyamin Netanyahu, hinders on what the Trump administration labels “anti-Israel bias”, a claim that seemingly stems from the recent designation of Hebron as a World Heritage Site. This is not the first time the US has withdrawn support from the organization. During the Reagan administration, the withdrawal occurred over “mismanagement and political implications”; the US rejoined in 2003 under Bush, but commenced withdrawing financial dues under Obama in 2011 when the organization included Palestine as a member. The Israel and US alliance began during the Truman presidency, around 1948. The purpose of this blog is not to delve into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict debate but to elucidate the power of collaborative relationship as an aspect of peace at the global level.

The purpose of UNESCO is to contribute to international peace and security through the cross-cultural collaboration of education, science, and culture, in accordance with the UN Chapter. The Constitution was signed into agreement in 1945, and came into force after twenty countries ratified it in 1946. UNESCO’s mandate lies in the removal of ignorance, mistrust, and suspicion from the minds of humanity, given that “wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” War, they assert, is propagated through ignorance, prejudice, and inequality; thus, denying democratic principles including “dignity, equality, and mutual respect” to all. Peace requires solidarity of humanity, both intellectually and morally.

Lines Drawn The ‘creation’ of the Green Line resulted in the 1949 Armistice and the lines of demarcation for Israel and her neighbors, specifically Jordan, and the designation of the West Bank. Following the Six Day War in 1967, Israel “annexed the eastern part of the city and its holy sites”; annexation did not include parts of Jerusalem, Bethlehem (the birthplace of Jesus), or Hebron (the burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of Judeo-Christian faith). Citizens of Israel and Palestine live on both sides of the Green Line. Palestine remains stateless, considering the requirements of Treaty of Westphalia, yet in 2011, the UN agency granted membership to the Palestinian Authority despite the full international recognition as a nation-state. Obama, in a May 2011 address, concluded a two state solution based upon the 1967 lines, presented the most viable option for peace in the region:

“What America and the international community can do is to state frankly what everyone knows — a lasting peace will involve two states for two peoples: Israel as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people, and the state of Palestine as the homeland for the Palestinian people, each state enjoying self-determination, mutual recognition, and peace… We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.  The Palestinian people must have the right to govern themselves, and reach their full potential, in a sovereign and contiguous state.”

Given that Obama’s speech took place in May and the withdrawal funds from UNESCO in November, it appears all signs point to a divided Obama administration. However, the legislation to withdraw American funds from any UN agency, admitting Palestine as a full member, has origins in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton presidencies.

a picture of the Sydney Opera House. It is a UNESCO site
Sydney Opera House. Source: Steve Collis, Creative Commons

A physical symbol of the UNESCO mandate materializes in the classification of world cultural/heritage sites. The designation of cultural sites in Israel began in 2001 and Palestine in 2012. In 2016, two Jewish sites in Jerusalem, geographically located in the West Bank, proved contentious for Israel and UNESCO. As a diplomatic entity, UNESCO introduced and regarded the sites by exclusive Arabic names, drawing the ire of Israel, who ascertained the move as “attempts to deny our heritage, distort history, and disconnect Jewish people from our capital and homeland”. According to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list, neither of the Temple Mount locations are on the established or tentative list. Thereby positing the question aimed at the accusation of bias – where is the evidence of bias when it comes to UNESCO and the establishment of heritage sites?

“Anti-Israel bias” Netanyahu, during his 2011 speech to the US joint Congress, declared Israel and the US “stand together to defend democracy… to advance peace…and to fight terrorism”. He continued with an acknowledgement of the right to protest, the demand for dignity, and the desire for liberty. If coupling this speech with the decision to withdraw, the US-Israel alliance takes on an ‘us vs them’ mentality when considering the collaborative nature of the UN family of agencies. Therefore, what is the value of peace, liberty, and justice for all when two nations position themselves against the rest of the world?

It is a matter of social control versus social solidarity, or a matter of isolation versus belonging. Irina Bokova stated regret over the decisions by acknowledging the withdrawals are a “loss for multilateralism”. Robarchek asserts the problem with social control lies in the emphasis on control rather than the social. He concludes, “…the willingness to give society’s interests precedence over one’s own wishes and impulses is largely rooted in individuals’ relationship to the community”. In terms of US-Israel relations with other nations, UNESCO, and other UN agencies: the US and Israel determined their parts are greater than the whole. US-Israel allowed their own interest to trump the superordinate interest of the community (the world, in this instance), thereby, discarding democracy and peace because of unresolved conflict. Fry suggests ‘us vs them’ contributes to intergroup hostility because of a failure to cultivate a common identity. He proposes peace has two essential variables: interdependence and cooperation. Interdependence and cooperation bring about peace through the development of values that inform behaviors.

Calhoun hypothesizes the practicality of belonging is problematic for some because “intense group commitments and claims to group rights can threaten individual liberties…” and an individualist democracy does not hold value in belonging and denies its importance. He implies belonging is imperative to the fulfillment of “multilayered, multilateral polities” so democracies flourish rather than become empires. Put another way, belonging keeps democracies from getting too big for their britches. The US and Israel, both possessing strengths and weakness, conflated financial investment as responsibility and a single alliance as partnership. They fail to recognize that “neglect[ing] social solidarity… neglecting social bases of their own efficacy, while others are all too aware of the limits of their individual capacity are clearly in need of collective support in relation to the challenges the world throws at them.” It is imperative for the US and Israel to recognize their fates are interconnected with other nations. The days of selfish thinking and isolationist behavior are gone as the world is uniting around a common identity with a common goal, and the US and Israel are the odd ones out.

Belonging matters.