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Opinion

Israel’s failure to inoculate Palestinians against Covid should be considered a war crime under international law

While Israel is being applauded for having one of the best Covid-19 vaccine programs in the world, it is rightly coming under increased criticism for not providing immunizations to Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank.

The legality of this refusal largely revolves around whether Israel is the occupying power over these territories – an issue on which it can take quite a fluid stance, depending upon what benefits its interests at any given moment.

The Times of Israel explains the issue well: “According to the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel, if it is considered an occupying power, is required to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Convention obligates an occupying power to ‘import the necessary medical supplies, including medicaments, vaccines, and sera, when the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.’”

Of course, the United Nations unequivocally recognizes Israel as the occupying power over both Gaza and the West Bank. For example, in 2004, the UN Security Council passed binding Resolution 1544, explicitly “[r]eiterating the obligation of Israel, the occupying Power, to abide scrupulously by its legal obligations and responsibilities under the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of 12 August 1949.” This, of course, should end the matter.

Still, Israel denies being the occupying power, at least for the issue of being required to abide by the Geneva Conventions. However, this claim is not only belied by numerous UN resolutions, it is also belied by Israel’s own conduct in Palestine.

For one, Israel’s position is contradicted by its ever-growing settlement construction in the West Bank – the settlements themselves constituting an independent violation of international law. Thus, in 2020 alone, over 12,000 settlement homes in the West Bank were approved by the Israeli government, adding to existing settlements there which already house around 450,000 Israelis. And, of course, these Israeli settlers are receiving vaccinations from the Israeli government.

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If Israel can build and expand settlements at will, as it has done, on many occasions destroying Palestinian homes and farmland in the process, then it undoubtedly occupies that territory and must tend to the humanitarian needs of ALL those living in that territory. The failure to do so constitutes a War Crime under the Geneva Conventions.

Israel’s destruction and takeover of Palestinian property are worth detailing here. According to Amnesty International, which also recognizes Israel as the Occupying Power, “[m]ore than 3,000 homes, hundreds of public buildings and private commercial properties, and vast areas of agricultural land have been destroyed by the Israeli army and security forces in Israel and the Occupied Territories in the past three and a half years. Tens of thousands of men, women and children have been forcibly evicted from their homes and made homeless or have lost their source of livelihood. Thousands of other houses and properties have been damaged, many beyond repair. In addition, tens of thousands of other homes are under threat of demolition, their occupants living in fear of forced eviction and homelessness.

“Forced evictions and house demolitions are usually carried out without warning, often at night, and the occupants are given little or no time to leave their homes. Sometimes they are allowed a few minutes or half an hour, too little to salvage their belongings. Often the only warning is the rumbling of the Israeli army’s bulldozers and tanks and the inhabitants barely have time to flee as the bulldozers begin to tear down the walls of their homes.”

As Amnesty International further explains, “[t]he destruction of Palestinian homes, agricultural land and other property in the Occupied Territories, including East Jerusalem, is inextricably linked with Israel’s long-standing policy of appropriating as much as possible of the land it occupies, notably by establishing Israeli settlements. The establishment of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories violates international humanitarian law, and the presence of these settlements has led to mass violations of human rights of the local Palestinian population.”

At the same time, Israel operates total control over Gaza, despite pulling back its military and settlements from there in 2005, through a total blockade of the Territory. As the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) explains, “Israel has imposed movement restrictions on the Gaza Strip since the early 1990’s. Restrictions intensified in June 2007, following the takeover of that part of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPT) by Hamas, when Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade on Gaza, citing security concerns.”

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OCHA continues, “1.8 million Palestinians in Gaza remain ‘locked in,’ denied free access to the remainder of the territory and the outside world. The blockade has undermined the living conditions in the coastal enclave and fragmented the oPT and its economic and social fabric.” Israel’s “locking in” of the residents of Gaza has led commenters like Noam Chomsky to refer to Gaza as world’s largest open-air prison.” Israel, being the Gazans’ jailer in this circumstance, is obligated to take care of its prisoners’ needs.

In short, Israel is the Occupying Power of the Palestinian Territories, not just de jure, but also de facto, as it exercises dominion and control over the Territories and the people therein. Israel cannot continue to exercise and expand its control of these Territories without assuming its legal and moral obligations to the Palestinian people. Indeed, this is why international humanitarian law exists – to require the needs of people, such as the Palestinians, to be taken care of by those (in this case, the Israelis) who actually control whether or not those needs can and will be met.

In the case of immunizations, Israel is the entity which can determine whether or not the Palestinians receive them or not. Therefore, under both international law, as well as basic notions of morality and decency, Israel must ensure they do.  

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