Medical Apartheid in Palestine

Medical apartheid is moving at full speed in Palestine. Israel has refused an informal request from the World Health Organization (WHO) to immediately make COVID-19 vaccines available to Palestinian medical workers to avert a health disaster, citing shortages of jabs for their own citizens. The specified reason does not hold water.

The Israeli government has purchased 10 million Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccines that are sufficient for five million people. This is in addition to the vaccines already purchased from Pfizer (8 million, which is enough for 4 million men and women) and Moderna (6 million, which is enough for 3 million people). Given the fact that there are about 6 million people in Israel over the age of 15 (the vaccine will not be given to children at this point), immunization for the Israeli population is completely covered.

AstraZeneca vaccines do not require special refrigeration and can be transported safely to remote places, isolated villages and refugee camps in Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT). Still, Israel has chosen not to do so.

The Myth of Israel’s "Vaccination Success"

Leaving the data aside, the fact that Israel prioritizes its citizens over Palestinians speaks volumes about the former’s intensely racist foundations and reveals the sordid underside of its "vaccination success" – the systematic exclusion of the colonized population. Israel’s vaccination campaign includes Jewish settlers living deep inside the West Bank, who are Israeli citizens, but not the roughly 2.7 million Palestinians living around them who may have to wait for weeks or months. While those in East Jerusalem are entitled to a vaccine, the inoculation rate has been slow. Only about 20% of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem aged 60 or above have received the COVID-19 vaccine. This compares to the 75% of Jerusalem’s Jewish population from the same age group.

Saleh Hijazi, deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, has said, "Israel’s Covid-19 vaccine program highlights the institutionalized discrimination that defines the Israeli government’s policy towards Palestinians…While Israel celebrates a record-setting vaccination drive, millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will receive no vaccine or have to wait much longer – there could hardly be a better illustration of how Israeli lives are valued above Palestinian ones."

The warped logic of Israel’s cruel chauvinism was displayed brutally in the case of Palestinian prisoners. In December 2020, Israel’s Public Security Minister Amir Ohana instructed prison officials not to begin vaccinating Palestinian inmates against COVID-19 until further notice. The Commission of Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs has criticized this move, which is aimed at "increasing the suffering of prisoners and to psychologically torture them and their families."

Hassan Abd Rabbo, media advisor for the commission affiliated with the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in an interview that "The statements of the Israeli public security minister [are racist and show the ugly face of the occupation and its immoral and criminal view on the rights of men and women inside prisons." "This position completely contradicts the obligations of the Israeli occupation under the Third and Fourth Geneva Conventions, a clear violation of international humanitarian law, and a clear violation of the instructions and protocols of the World Health Organization, which demand the vaccination of all prisoners…The occupation must take preventive measures to protect prisoners held in overcrowded rooms and sections of prisons."

Zionist Racism

The medical apartheid being practiced by Israel is a reflection of deeply ingrained ideological structures, which together constitute the entirety of Zionist racism. Through these racialized cultural configurations, a colonial context has been formed, one which conditions every aspect of Palestinian existence. Thus, healthcare, too, gets entwined with the racist mechanisms of Zionist apartheid. Many examples can be adduced to show this.

  • The Palestinians living in the West Bank face numerous barriers to accessing healthcare. This is because more than half of the West Bank is under an "Area C" designation, meaning it is under direct Israeli civil and military control. More than one-third of people living under Area C-designated zones depend on mobile clinics to access essential health services. Reaching the nearest clinic often entails costs that people cannot afford. They are forced to travel long distances with no public transportation and bad road conditions prevent ambulances from being able to reach certain communities. An added burden for people living in Area C derives from their inability to build any permanent or semi-permanent structures without a permit from Israeli authorities, which is rarely granted. Therefore, every healthcare center is in a constant danger of being knocked down by Israeli stormtroopers.
  • In June 2001, the Israeli Health Ministry published a map of the geographical distribution of malignant diseases in Israel during the years 1984–1999. Although the detailed report presented data about such diseases in communities with more than ten thousand residents, it excluded all Palestinian communities in Israel, with the exception of Rahat in the Naqab desert. When asked why, ministry officials resorted to the excuse of "budgetary problems." This research is extremely important because in Israel only when a correlation is shown between the presence of polluting sites and the incidence of malignant disease is it possible to prevent installation of hazardous structures or to demand environmental controls. By intentionally omitting Palestinian areas in its cancer mapping, Israel’s Health Ministry authorized the relocation of polluters to those towns. The results of such pervasive discrimination are destructive. Between 1980 and 2010, the rate of malignant diseases in the Palestinian population in Israel rose by 97.8% among men and 123% among women, as opposed to a rise of 39.8% for men and 24.4% for women in the Jewish population.

Legal Obligations of an Occupying Power

As per Article 56 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, the occupying powers have a responsibility to maintain "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". Despite these legal responsibilities, Israel has chosen not to provide vaccine to Palestinians.

While Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) have signed up for the Gavi Alliance – a program that aims to vaccinate the most vulnerable 20% of each applicant – any vaccine provider must still be granted permission by Israel, as these vaccines would need to be approved by Israeli regulators to be allowed into the OPT. Judging from what Israel is doing right now, it may well be possible that it would shun its legal obligations and create hurdles in the vaccination program. To prevent such an occurrence, the international community needs to wake up and take cognizance of the immeasurable suffering of Palestinians.

Yanis Iqbal is an independent researcher and freelance writer based in Aligarh, India and can be contacted at