The two emails came in quick succession. One asked if I had been following the latest Israeli vaccine story. A few minutes later, another notified me I could sign up online to get the vaccine.
They highlighted the same problem.
It’s been nearly impossible for tens of thousands of eligible would-be vaccine takers across Washington, D.C., where I live, to actually get the shot. It’s the same across the country. Hundreds of thousands of doses promised to cities and states never arrived. Where there should be coordination, there’s been only chaos.
Because our country treats health care as a privilege, not a right, those most vulnerable to the virus — especially people of color and the poor — are also those least likely to get quick access to the vaccines. Between 3,000 and 4,000 people die every day across the United States, even as unused vaccines get tossed in the trash.
In Israel, things have gone better. Initial reports boasted that the country had vaccinated the highest percentage of its citizens of any country in the world.
The Brookings Institution ran a congratulatory story headlined “The Secret Sauce Behind Israel’s COVID-19 Vaccination Program.” It credits the country’s “vast public health infrastructure, a public good that has developed through heavy public investment since the creation of the state about 70 years ago.”
Israel’s public health system has indeed succeeded at vaccinating Israeli citizens effectively. But a key ingredient in its “secret sauce” is exclusion. Millions of Palestinians living under Israeli rule simply aren’t getting access to the vaccine.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis live in colonial settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Those post-1967 settlements, where only Jews are permitted to live, are all illegal under international law and United Nations resolutions. But they are built with full support of the Israeli government, and their residents are Israeli citizens.
These settlers thus have full access to the COVID-19 vaccine alongside the other privileges of Jewish Israeli citizenship. But the 3 million Palestinians living in that same West Bank, and the 2 million more in the besieged Gaza Strip, are excluded.
These Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation. Israel controls their borders, land, water, economy, airspace and access to health care. But unlike their Jewish settler neighbors, they can’t vote in Israeli elections, and they can’t get a vaccine.
There is a word in international law for this situation: apartheid.
Human rights activists and international law experts have been warning about this for years. In January the respected Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem described the country’s reality as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is apartheid.”
Vaccine apartheid is only the latest variant — and it’s no less illegal under international law.
As the occupying power in the Palestinian territories, Israel is obligated under the Geneva Conventions to provide for “public health services, public health and hygiene” — including the “preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
Faced with growing international pressure at their refusal to provide vaccines, Israel recently announced it would allow 5,000 doses of the Russian vaccine to be transferred to Palestinian health care workers from Jordan to the West Bank. But that’s not even close to what they are obligated to do under international law, which is to provide equal vaccines to Palestinians that they are now boasting about providing to Israelis.
Palestinians, many of whom are refugees living in crowded camps where social distancing remains largely impossible and even clean water for hand washing remains unavailable, face daunting COVID-19 odds. According to the United Nations, more than 160,000 Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation have tested positive, and more than 1,700 have died. And the virus continues to ravage the territories.
The United States supports Israel’s military to the tune of almost $4 billion per year. American taxpayers are effectively subsidizing this vaccine apartheid, along with other brutal realities of Israel’s illegal colonization.
With a new administration taking over vaccine distribution in the United States, I have a suggestion: Let’s spend less on supporting vaccine apartheid abroad — and more on ending it at home. The “secret sauce” of all public health should be equality.