By: Prema Rahman, MPAC Human Security Manager
Millions of Palestinians are now living under full-blown medical apartheid, with no access to vaccines. Alone, they stand little chance to secure vaccine supplies. They need international help. Particularly, they need the United States to step in and help them gain access. With Inauguration Day inching closer, we are pegging our hopes for peace and reconciliation to the new President’s ability to reinstall America’s human rights responsibilities. Domestically, President-elect Biden has his work cut out for him, with the nation deeply divided and Americans struggling to have faith in the legitimacy of our government in the face of police brutality, racial injustice, health inequality, and health insecurity. Internationally, America has a long path to regaining credibility and legitimacy.
Our relationship with human rights has been shaky at best and hypocritical at worst. Too often, we have weaponized our foreign policy to achieve our geopolitical interests without accounting for the human rights concerns compromised in the process. The United States has been Israel’s patron saint for decades now, funneling billions of dollars as military aid to Israel. Not only that, American taxpayers helped fund Israel’s illegal settlements in Palestine, further exacerbating the plight of the Palestinian people. If we are to earn back global standing as a champion for human rights, it is imperative we begin holding Israel accountable for its apartheid policies.
Israel now leads globally with the most number of vaccinations administered per capita. Yet, it is unwilling to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza strip, who are blockaded by Israel and Egypt. Israel claims the Oslo Peace Accords puts the responsibility of healthcare on Palestinian authorities, but it occupies Palestinian territory and blockades Gaza, leaving little room for Palestinians to build any semblance of a stable economy. These extenuating circumstances have stripped Palestinians of the means to negotiate vaccinations: they have yet to secure supplies from vaccine manufacturers. While millions of Palestinians in the West Bank remain without access to vaccines, hundreds of thousands of illegal Israeli settlers there are getting access to the vaccines, as per the head of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, Dr. Mustafa Barghouti’s account to Democracy Now! Inequity and unchecked injustice are at the core of this situation.
Though about 3% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza may soon be vaccinated through COVAX, a WHO co-led coalition to open up vaccine access to less privileged nations, Ali Abed Rabbo, director-general of the Palestinian Health Ministry, calculates that Palestinians will only gain access to the first round of vaccines in February. That, itself, is an optimistic forecast. Dr. Barghouti predicts it will take another four to five months for COVAX to supply vaccines to Palestine. From a public health standpoint, Israel’s refusal to vaccinate Palestinians is simply poor policy that would undermine the country’s ambitions to achieve herd immunity. Leaving Palestinians unvaccinated would fail to contain the pandemic and leave Israelis vulnerable to infection. Herd immunity only works when large masses, especially at-risk populations, are vaccinated because vaccines do not guarantee 100% effectiveness and immunity. From a human rights standpoint, this policy is pure apartheid behavior that essentially robs Palestinians of a fighting chance against COVID-19 and leaves thousands susceptible to death.
As the occupying power, Israel has a responsibility to distribute vaccines throughout Palestinian territories. However, if its past behavior is any indicator, then chances are, it will not bow to pressure from the human rights community. How then can Israel be held accountable for its actions? The United States, Israel’s strongest ally, has historically taken on the responsibility of arbitrating Israel-Palestine negotiations. In reality, as Israel’s chief economic and military patron, the United States has rarely used that position to apply conditions on Israel to abide by international law or uphold human rights. During his term, Trump did not even attempt to include Palestinians in the so-called Israel-Palestine reconciliation process. Instead, he only weakened the United States’ ability to act as an arbitrator for peace by cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and scrapping together a grossly offensive “deal of the century” that would essentially leave Palestine under Israeli control. Even so, the United States wields the strongest influence over Israel and, as such, is in the unique position to exercise its power play to convince Israel to share vaccine doses with Palestinians.
Following the Trump presidency’s trivialization of human rights and the outgoing President’s efforts to undermine our democracy, Biden faces a steep uphill battle in rebuilding America’s credibility in the world of human rights. Until we fix our problems at home — beginning with racial justice (police brutality and disregard for black lives are very much human rights issues), health equity, and economic security — we cannot justifiably scold other countries into upholding human rights without coming off as hypocritical. Realistically, however, our foreign policy will not come to a halt while we work on resolving our domestic priorities. So while we build back a better America, we need to simultaneously recommit to our human rights engagement abroad. And we need to be more principled and equitable than ever in our foreign policy approach if we want to rebuild the international community’s trust.
In an interview with The New York Times, Biden promised that “human rights will be at the core of U.S. foreign policy” under his presidency. Biden must start with reviewing our allies that receive U.S. foreign aid rather than weaponizing human rights for confrontational policies against others, as has been the case with our policies toward Israel and the Middle East. If he is to walk the talk, then within the first 100 days in office, Biden should adopt a stronger response to Israel’s human rights violations and urge their officials to distribute vaccines among Palestinians, whose conditions they are entirely responsible for. This can save the lives of thousands of high-risk Palestinians who may otherwise perish at the hands of COVID-19 while they await vaccination. The buck must finally stop here.