Israel is Obligated to Vaccinate the Palestinians – and Other Myths

After Israel arranged to get early access to enough COVID-19 vaccine for its entire population, journalists and human rights groups like Amnesty International mangled international law and the Oslo Accords to argue that Israel must also vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. This despite that, unlike Israeli-Arabs, Palestinians live under Palestinian rule and are not citizens or permanent residents of Israel.

According to the New York Times, for example:

But Israel says it isn’t obliged to vaccinate the rest of the Palestinian population, citing a clause of the Oslo peace accords of the 1990s, which transferred health care duties to Palestinian officials. Critics say it is still Israel’s responsibility to help, citing international law requiring an occupying power to oversee health care for occupied populations, as well as a separate clause of the Oslo accords that says Israel must work with Palestinians during epidemics. (NYT, April 2, 2021)

Amnesty International, in an article with the inflammatory title Denying COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians exposes Israel’s institutionalized discrimination, charged that:

Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine programme highlights the institutionalized discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians … Israeli authorities must ensure that vaccines are equally provided to the Palestinians living under their control, in order to meet their obligations under international law. They must also ensure smooth entry of vaccines and other medical equipment to the OPT, including making any necessary logistical arrangements to ensure the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines …

Israel’s obligations under international humanitarian law include the duty of ensuring and maintaining “the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”, as per Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. (January 6, 2021; emphasis added)

In fact, this is a new anti-Israel myth concocted by Amnesty International and credulously repeated by the New York Times and many other media outlets. It is a myth because, according to the Fourth Geneva Convention itself, Article 56 – the key to Amnesty’s vaccine charges against Israel – ceases to apply one year after the close of military operations.

This is according to Article 6 of the convention, whose relevant portions state:

The present Convention shall apply from the outset of any conflict or occupation mentioned in Article 2 … In the case of occupied territory, the application of the present Convention shall cease one year after the general close of military operations; however, the Occupying Power shall be bound, for the duration of the occupation, to the extent that such Power exercises the functions of government in such territory, by the provisions of the following Articles of the present Convention: 1 to 12, 27, 29 to 34, 47, 49, 51, 52, 53, 59, 61 to 77, 143. (emphasis added)

Notice that contrary to what Amnesty International would have people believe, Article 56 is not among those articles that continue to “apply one year after the general close of military operations.”

In fact, of the articles that do continue to apply, Article 59 is the only one relevant to the question of epidemics and vaccines:

Art. 59. If the whole or part of the population of an occupied territory is inadequately supplied, the Occupying Power shall agree to relief schemes on behalf of the said population, and shall facilitate them by all the means at its disposal.

Such schemes, which may be undertaken either by States or by impartial humanitarian organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, shall consist, in particular, of the provision of consignments of foodstuffs, medical supplies and clothing.

All Contracting Parties shall permit the free passage of these consignments and shall guarantee their protections …  (emphasis added)

So contrary to what Amnesty International and the New York Times deceptively claim, Israel’s obligation under the Fourth Geneva Convention is to “agree to relief schemes” to get, in this case, vaccine supplies to the Palestinian authorities from other parties such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, and to allow for the safe transport to the Palestinian Authority of vaccines that the PA has independently acquired. This is exactly what has been happening for years – the Palestinian authorities have been routinely acquiring vaccines on their own and inoculating the Palestinian public.

A notable recent example is administration of Rotavirus vaccines. Rotavirus is a major cause of death among children due to diarrhea, causing about 20% of such deaths globally. To prevent Rotavirus deaths the Palestinian Ministry of Health added the ROTARIX® vaccine to its routine immunization program in 2016. In 2018 the Palestinian MOH decided to switch to the lower cost option of ROTAVAC®, a Rotavirus vaccine made in India. Notice that these vaccines were chosen, purchased and imported by the Palestinian Ministry of Health – not by the Israeli Ministry of Health or the Israeli government. The only Israeli responsibility was (and is) to allow the vaccines to be safely transported to the Palestinian authorities.

Israel has done this for the Rotavirus vaccine and for other vaccines for the Palestinians, such as MMR and DPT. It’s no surprise then, that according to a report in 2020 by the Palestinian Economic Policy Research Institute:

Necessary vaccines against contagious diseases such as measles and the DPT vaccine cover up to 100% of children. Palestine is considered one of the least countries that are exposed to the spread of contagious or deadly diseases such as cholera, malaria, tuberculosis and AIDS between its inhabitants. (Palestinian Health Sector Assessment: Macro-Analytical Study, p41)

The second myth to be disposed of is the claim repeated by the New York Times (and quoted above) that Israel must supply vaccines to the Palestinians under “a separate clause of the Oslo accords that says Israel must work with Palestinians during epidemics.”

The Times is apparently referring to Paragraph 6 in Article 17 of Annex 3 to the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement (1995), which reads:

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.

Exchanging information and documents and cooperating hardly creates an Israeli obligation to supply vaccines. Indeed, vaccination is a specific Palestinian responsibility as emphasized in paragraphs 1 and 2 of the same Article 17:

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. (emphasis added)

That is, this section of the Interim Agreement with the Palestinians only further undermines the anti-Israel charges leveled by the New York Times, Amnesty International, etc.

The bottom line is that Israel may decide on a humanitarian basis to share more COVID-19 vaccine with the Palestinians, but it is under no obligation to do so.

What about the obligations of the New York Times? According to its own Guidelines on Integrity, “the journalism we practice daily must be beyond reproach” and the paper must “maintain the highest possible standards to insure that we do nothing that might erode readers’ faith and confidence in our news columns.”

Falsifying Israel’s obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Interim Accords is not exactly journalism that is “beyond reproach” or of “the highest possible standards.”

That is, unlike Israel, the New York Times has failed to meet its obligations.

The same is true of Amnesty International – according to the Accountability Charter it has pledged to follow, Amnesty vows that it will:

… adhere to generally-accepted standards of technical accuracy and honesty in presenting and interpreting data and research …

Falsely charging that Israel’s vaccine policies violate the Fourth Geneva Convention is a grave violation of Amnesty’s pledge to adhere to accepted standards of accuracy and honesty.

Amnesty’s portrayal of its charges as highlighting “the institutionalized discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians,” actually highlights something very different – the “institutionalized discrimination that defines” Amnesty International’s habitual maligning of Israel.

Again, unlike Israel, it is Amnesty International that has failed to meet its obligations.

By repeatedly violating their own standards and guidelines, both the New York Times and Amnesty International have failed their readers and stakeholders, and neither are credible sources on Israel.