Israel Is Responsible For Vaccinating Palestinians Under Occupation. Even The Oslo Accords Say So

Photo by Libertinus, used under a Creative Commons license

Well, Michael Che certainly stirred things up, didn’t he? With one little joke, really a throwaway line in Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” sketch, Che set social media abuzz and sent pro-Israel activists into a tizzy.

The joke? “Israel is reporting that they vaccinated half of their population,” said Che, the show’s co-head writer, “and I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half.”

Always on the lookout for anything that can possibly be interpreted as antisemitic, especially when the alleged antisemite is not white nor from the right wing, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and others pounced on Che.

The accusation is absurd on its face and helps to lay bare the agenda of using antisemitism to deflect criticism of Israel, especially when that criticism is legitimate and is focused on an incident of particular cruelty to innocent civilians, as this one is. Israeli news sources from the left-wing Ha’aretz to the right-wing Jerusalem Post called out this “overreaction,” although the latter only did so in service of cynically collapsing anti-Zionism with antisemitism.

But this issue has been roiling for weeks now, and it demands some clarity. Defenders of Israel say that the Israeli government is not responsible for vaccinating Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. They point to the Oslo Accords, which they say transfers all responsibility for health care to the Palestinians.

By every measure, they are wrong, and it’s time to set the record straight.

First, no one debates the fact that the Geneva Convention places responsibility for the well-being of a population under occupation squarely in the hands of the occupying power. Some argue that the West Bank and Gaza are not occupied, but either disputed (the West Bank) or areas of conflict (Gaza).

Those arguments are demonstrably wrong, but even if we grant, for the sake of this argument, that they have validity, it is indisputable that the West Bank is not an independent state, but under the control of Israel, which controls entrance and egress, much of the infrastructure, the roads, the currency…in short, all the means of Palestinian independence. In Gaza, the entire area is under an Israeli siege that renders normal economic function impossible.

Whether or not these measures are justified (they’re not), they still leave Israel responsible for Palestinian health and well-being under international humanitarian law.

But Israel and her supporters argue, in the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority agreed to assume full responsibility for the health care system for the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Once and for all, this argument is wrong on every level.

Israel has an obvious self-interest in vaccinating Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza because they come into contact with them. Presumably, even Israel’s most staunch defenders would agree at least on that point.

Israel has a clear moral obligation to vaccinate Palestinians. Neither the PA nor Hamas in Gaza enjoy sovereignty by any definition of that term, and it is Israel that denies it. That should be clear enough.

But Israel also has a legal responsibility. As scholar Yara M. Asi states, “I would argue that not only is Israel under legal and moral obligations to include Palestinians in the vaccine program, but it is also in its own self-interest.”

To begin with, Oslo cannot supersede the Geneva Conventions. It would be obviously unworkable as a legal principle to permit an occupying power and an occupied people to sign an agreement that nullifies international law. That should be self-evident. As Asi states, “Aside from protections for health, hygiene, and other living conditions, the (Geneva) convention specifies that no agreement between the parties supersedes its protections while occupation continues.”

Moreover the Interim Agreement — the part of the Oslo Accords that is cited as relevant in this case — was never meant to establish a permanent state of affairs. It was written to cover a five-year period during which the outstanding issues between Israel and the Palestinians were to be settled. That five-year period ended more than two decades ago.

Yet, even at that, the very text of the Interim Agreement does not support the current Israeli position.

Israel’s claim that it is not responsible for vaccinating the Palestinians is based on the first two stipulations in Article 17 of Annex III of the Interim agreement. Those read:

1. Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of Health in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side, including the health insurance system.

2. The Palestinian side shall continue to apply the present standards of vaccination of Palestinians and shall improve them according to internationally accepted standards in the field, taking into account WHO recommendations. In this regard, the Palestinian side shall continue the vaccination of the population with the vaccines listed in Schedule 3.

The fact that this was an interim agreement informed the wording of these points. The idea was that the PA would assume responsibility for standard vaccinations, as that was understood in 1995, and should improve those standards as normal health requirements demanded over time. The agreement covered standard vaccines, not emergency responses that required unusual measures, like the COVID pandemic.

Indeed, so that there would be no confusion, the standard vaccinations and their schedule were listed in Schedule 3 of the same Annex. The vaccines were specified, including things like mumps, rubella, hepatitis, meningitis, polio…the standard vaccines we are all familiar with.

What about pandemics and epidemics that could not have been foreseen in 1995, like COVID-19? Actually, the Interim Agreement did address that in Article 17, stipulation 6:

6. Israel and the Palestinian side shall exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, shall cooperate in combating them and shall develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents. (emphasis added)

Thus, the very document that Israel uses to justify its refusal to help vaccinate the populations of the West Bank and Gaza actually commits it to doing just that. On the other hand, the very clauses it uses to defend its refusal to act specifically list the areas of Palestinian responsibility, with a dangerous pandemic like COVID-19 falling outside of those areas. It seems likely, given the expertise in epidemiology that Israel could draw on for these stipulations, that this was intentional, that Israel recognized that it only made sense to combat viruses which know no borders or ethnicities, as one territorial unit, from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Whether the Israeli side was conscious of what it was committing to or not, this was what Oslo said. So, even if we grant that Israel does not have the ethical responsibility it does have; even if we stipulate that it is entitled, which it is not, to be suicidally stupid and waste its enormous effort to vaccinate its whole citizenry and still not achieve immunity because it refuses to vaccinate Palestinians; even if we concede that Oslo can supersede the Geneva Conventions, which it cannot; even if we grant all those things, Israel is still responsible for vaccinating the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

If Israel doesn’t want Michael Che to ridicule its criminal, cruel, and unethical behavior regarding vaccinations, maybe it should follow the Geneva Convention, its own interest, the Oslo Accords, and common decency.

[NOTE: Although cited in this article, I need to credit Prof. Yara M. Asi for pointing out, in the early days of this controversy, that the Oslo Accords contradict Israel’s claims of not being responsible for vaccinating Palestinians. She had nothing to do with writing this article, and any mistakes in it are purely my own, but I would not have known about these obscure clauses if she had not pointed them out here, and she should have been listened to long before now.]

Mitchell Plitnick is President of ReThinking Foreign Policy and the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of the new book, Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics, available now wherever you buy books, ebooks, or audiobooks.

Author of "Except for Palestine," with Marc Lamont Hill. President of ReThinking Foreign Policy, writer, speaker, Podcaster, blogger.

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