A vaccine in Palestine? Sorry, Israeli settlers only - Article by Chris Doyle

A vaccine in Palestine? Sorry, Israeli settlers only - Article by Chris Doyle in Arab News, 21 December 2020

Gaza in December can be gritty at the best of times. Rain and wind play havoc with the shacks of the crowded refugees camps. Flooding is frequent, leading to impassable streets and alleyways, the air scented with the stench of overflowing raw sewage decorated with floating debris. As with nearly every piece of infrastructure in this tiny strip of occupied land, the drainage barely functions.  Even farmlands are under water, and crops such as strawberries are ruined.

With the floods this year comes the added terror of the COVID-19 pandemic. The streets were empty last weekend because of a two-day lockdown. An overnight curfew has been in place since August. Contaminated rainwater is the virus’s friend. In Gaza, the virus has few barriers and plenty of humans to infect. Crowded unsanitary conditions and a malnourished population combine with a crippled healthcare system barely capable of handling mundane levels of illness, let alone a pandemic.

The psychological impact is massive for an already traumatized population surviving under the jackboot of a military occupation, a 13-year blockade and three major wars. Two million people are trapped, with maybe eight hours of electricity a day, waiting for the virus to strike. 

And the virus is spreading. In the second week of December, cases in Palestinian territories rose by almost a third. On Dec. 17, 1,015 cases were reported in Gaza, the highest daily total since the pandemic started. The 12 reported deaths were the second-highest daily death toll. Everyone knows this will get massively worse.

The challenges for the medical sector do not bear contemplating. Mahmoud Shalabi of Medical Aid for Palestinians said: “There are huge shortages in PPE, drugs, disposables, infection control supplies, ICU equipment and respiratory devices and, last but not least, oxygen urgently needed for COVID-19 patients.” Training of health workers is also essential. They are on the front line but lack the skills to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients.

Testing is under threat, with the numbers carried out decreasing every week.  At the start of December, testing was suspended until an emergency supply of testing kits arrived from the WHO. Germany has chipped in with two PCR testing machines. The limited to non-existent testing means that the true spread of the virus on the strip is unknown. Gaza has managed to increase the number of intensive care beds for COVID-19 patients to 200, a figure that may not be nearly enough.

Israel has bought five million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was vaccinated early on Dec. 20. His counterpart in the West Bank is somewhat more vulnerable, as President Mahmoud Abbas is in his eighties. He, like his fellow residents (Palestinians are not citizens of their own state of course), do not qualify for the vaccines from their military overlords.

Five million Palestinians in occupied territory do not appear on Israel’s vaccination program.  Illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank will get the vaccine, but not their Palestinian Arab neighbors. It is reminiscent of howIsraeli citizens had access to gas masks when Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was launching missiles.

The legal position on Israel’s responsibilities to those living under its military occupation is crystal clear. “Israel bears moral and humanitarian responsibility for vaccinating the Palestinian population under its control,” according to Physicians for Human Rights. In a written parliamentary answer, a British Foreign Office minister confirmed in unusually clear language the international legal position: “Under International Humanitarian Law, Israel, as the Occupying Power, has the duty of ensuring and maintaining public health and hygiene in the Occupied Palestinian Territories to the fullest extent of the means available and with the cooperation of the local authorities.” Few expect that Britain or other leading world powers will compel Israel to honor its legal duties.

Some Israeli ministers will accept it may be in their interests to assist a Palestinian vaccination program but, as ever, deny their legal responsibility. Israel will vaccinate its nine million citizens first and may be willing to allow any leftovers to go to the Palestinians.

So how will Palestinians get the vaccine, and who will pay? Both in Gaza and the West Bank, the logistical infrastructure to handle the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine does not exist. For example, the Palestinian Authority could store only limited doses because of the cold storage requirement. The PA has ordered four million doses of the Russian Sputnik V, the first 150,000 doses of which should arrive in the next few weeks. The Russian vaccine could be highly effective, but doubts will persist without any proper independent testing and publicly available data that experts can examine.

For Gaza, the horizon is far less certain. Officials say the Russian doses will go to Gaza too but doubts have been expressed about this. By the time this happens, the virus may have such a vice-like grip on the population that the damage will have been done. For once, the youthful nature of Gaza’s population may be a small shield, even though many have compromised immune systems.

For 2021, the world will be divided into the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. It will for the salient barometer of inequality. Nowhere will this be more starkly illustrated than in the 360km of Gaza.