Wednesday, January 06, 2021



We have been inundated the past couple of weeks with the claim that Israel must, under international law, provide vaccines to Palestinians at the same time it is providing them to Israelis. 

One example is the new letter from 15 "human rights" NGOs which says, "Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically provides that an occupier has the duty of ensuring 'the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics'. This duty includes providing support for the purchase and distribution of vaccines to the Palestinian population under its control."

If we assume that the Palestinian areas are occupied - something that I disagree with - the question is, are these critics accurate?  What exactly does international law say?

The Fourth Geneva Conventions, Article 56, says:

To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities, 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. 
The bolded part is not in the NGO letter, and for good reason: it is critical and contradicts what Amnesty, B'Tselem and the others claim.

To understand why, here is the 1958 interpretation of that article from the ICRC, which is generally accepted as international law:

The reference in the Article to "the co-operation of national and local authorities" ...shows clearly that there can be no question of making the Occupying Power alone responsible for the whole burden of organizing hospitals and health services and taking measures to control epidemics. The task is above all one for the competent services of the occupied country itself. 
This is crystal clear - even in cases of belligerent occupation, the primary responsibility of health care goes to the local medical professionals. In this case, obviously, that would be the Palestinian Authority. 

It is possible that in certain cases the national authorities will be perfectly well able to look after the health of the population; in such cases the Occupying Power will not have to intervene; it will merely avoid hampering the work of the organizations responsible for the task. 

Which is exactly what is happening. The Palestinian medical infrastructure is decent. If they need help from Israel, there is no reason to think that Israel wouldn't help out. Israel was praised even by the UN on how well it has cooperated with the PA during the pandemic even while the PA spread conspiracy theories, why would anyone besides antisemites think otherwise?

It will be remembered that Article 55 requires the Occupying Power to import the necessary medical supplies, such as medicaments, vaccines and sera, when the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.
In this case, the local resources have been making arrangements to buy their own vaccines. They will probably have to wait until February, but in that sense they are no worse than most of the nations of the world. Israel paid double or triple the regular price of the vaccines it has procured specifically to get to the front of the line, any nation could have done the same, but practically the entire world has chosen to wait and purchase them at regular prices. (Plus, logistically, the PA couldn't use the Pfizer vaccine that Israel is vaccinating its citizens with anyway because they don't have the proper refrigeration equipment.)

If the Palestinians waiting for a few weeks for the Moderna or Astra Zeneca or Sputnik vaccines is a violation of human rights, then most of the world is having their human rights violated.

At any rate, claiming that Israel is somehow responsible for bringing the vaccines to Palestinians at the same time as Israelis is not supported at all in international law. Nor does any international law say that an occupier must prioritize taking care of the citizens in occupied territories before providing for its own citizens. 

Obviously, if there is a major breakout of a much deadlier strain in the Palestinian territories, it is in Israel's self-interest to work with the Palestinian Authority to help them - just as they cooperated with them last spring, before Mahmoud Abbas decided to cut all ties - including medical! - with Israel. 

The bottom line is that international law of belligerent occupation says that if Israel is the occupying power, it must act with the local authorities to ensure the health of the population. Which is exactly what Israel has been doing since the initial outbreak. The only party that refused cooperation was the Palestinian Authority from around June to November. If they ask for help, they will get it.

And anyone who implies otherwise is either ignorant or bigoted. 




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