Hebron, Palestine, is a city of ancient dreams and broken futures. Its beautiful, twisting stone walls carry the city’s biblical history, and its famous fruit and pottery fill the bustling markets. But the city, divided between an Israeli settlement and Palestinian residential areas, is severed into two governing regions by walls and fences. Political conflict tears its streets apart.
In her home in Hebron, Salma Shaheen spent winter break preparing for the spring semester of her junior year at Yale. The pandemic and the vaccination process, however, loomed heavily on her mind.
Shaheen is a Palestinian living under Israeli military occupation, which dictates her decisions at home and during travel. All winter break, she debated whether to enroll remotely or to study at Yale so that she could receive the vaccine. As a Palestinian, it was extremely unlikely that she would receive a dose in her hometown.
Less than 50 miles away, Gall Sigler, a sophomore at Yale, was not so stressed about receiving the vaccine. He received his dose at Yale, but when asked if he otherwise would have gotten a dose in his home city of Rehovot, Israel, he replied, “Oh, absolutely. And very easily.”
Though separated by only a few miles, Shaheen and Sigler belong to two disparate worlds. While Sigler’s world is one of advanced technology and abundant resources, Shaheen’s is one of military occupation, discrimination, and precarity—a world additionally destabilized by Israel’s inequitable management of COVID-19. Israel’s vaccination distribution has left behind Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, illuminating the underlying systems of oppression that result from Israel’s occupation.
The New York Times, CNBC, European leaders, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and other Western media outlets have praised Israel as a world leader in vaccinating its population against COVID-19 and have encouraged other countries to follow suit. This praise is not without merit: As of April 14, 57.4 percent of Israelis have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 53.3 percent have received both.
Sigler’s family and relatives were vaccinated in early January. As Israeli citizens, they have access to a centralized, universal healthcare system that assigns them personal ID numbers, giving them easy digital access to healthcare. His mother, aunt, and grandmother all received a text notification with a link to an app to schedule their first and second shots.
Securing vaccinations was not as easy for Shaheen’s family.
Both Shaheen’s mother and brother are healthcare workers. Her brother, a doctor at an Israeli hospital, has still not received the vaccine, even though his Israeli colleagues have all been vaccinated. “If you’re not an Arab from the West Bank, you are vaccinated,” explained Shaheen.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Israel implemented a security lockdown and sent thousands of Palestinian laborers home to the West Bank — including Shaheen’s brother — leaving them suddenly unemployed. However, private Israeli companies began worrying that the shortage of Palestinian workers negatively affected profits and the employment of Israelis. In mid-March, Israel and the Palestinian Authority agreed to allow 55,000 West Bank Palestinian workers to return to work in Israel on the condition that they would not return home for at least a month.
When Shaheen’s brother returned to Israel, he was handed a paper that stated he would not be receiving medical insurance coverage, unlike his Israeli colleagues. If he were to contract COVID-19, he would be sent back to the West Bank, where he would not be able to receive adequate treatment due to the undeveloped healthcare system. The Israeli authorities did not establish standards for housing, healthcare, or COVID testing, leaving room for Israeli employers to exploit the workers. When Israel began rolling out vaccines, Shaheen’s brother became anxious, knowing that he would not be offered the vaccine and would work in Israel unprotected.
Shaheen herself is facing the consequences of this vaccination inequity. On the first day of April, when vaccines became available to Yale students, she spent her afternoon at Blue State Coffee anxiously refreshing her MyChart account, hoping to secure a vaccine dose. “I can’t get it in Palestine,” she explained, worriedly tapping her fingers on the table and refreshing her phone again. If she did not receive the vaccine at Yale, she would not be vaccinated for a very long time, and this only compounded her anxiety.
While the media highlighted Israel’s vaccination successes for families like Sigler’s, Shaheen’s family and millions of other Palestinians in the Occupied Territories face a much more grim reality.
Shaheen and her family are among the 5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza who did not have access to the COVID-19 vaccine. Israel initially withheld vaccinations from Palestinian citizens, but at the urging of Israeli public health officials, Israel announced in late February of this year that it would vaccinate Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and Palestinian day laborers in Israel to protect Israel’s public health and security.
In March, the Palestinian Authority secured 10,000 doses of Russian-Sputnik doses for the West Bank and 2,000 for Gaza, in addition to the 20,000 sent by the United Arab Emirates. The World Health Organization is leading a Covax equitable vaccine-sharing scheme that aims to vaccinate 20 percent of the Palestinian population, with 240,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and 37,440 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
After a call for Palestinian vaccine coverage from the United Nations Human Rights Council, Israel sent 2,000 Moderna doses to the Palestinian Authority—hardly enough to vaccinate its population of 5 million.
With recent spikes in COVID-19 cases, these vaccine doses are insufficient. According to the WHO, as of March 2020, there have been over 213,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and more than 2,300 deaths, in addition to 77,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Gaza and 650 deaths. As these numbers climb every day, so does Palestinians’ anxiety about their lack of protection.
It is difficult to ignore the discriminatory nature of Israel’s vaccine distribution. In addition to Palestinians, there are 600,000 settlers–including Jewish non-citizens–in the West Bank that live in illegal settlements. All of these settlers have access to the Israeli government’s vaccination program, whereas many Palestinians cannot secure a dose because of the shortage in Palestine.
“Israel has an obligation to give us the vaccine,” said Dr. Haidar Eid, author and associate professor of English literature at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, in a York University panel on medical apartheid. International law validates Eid’s assertion. Under Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, an occupying power must ensure “the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics,” which includes the distribution of vaccines.
Israeli officials, however, have countered by invoking the Oslo Accords. The Oslo Accords, comprising two agreements signed in 1993 and 1995 between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, state that the Palestinian Authority health ministry is responsible for the management of contagious disease in the Occupied Territories. Additionally, the PA has not asked Israel to supply them with vaccines, and Israeli public officials have used this point to justify their vaccination policies.
However, the Accords also state that “Israel and the Palestinian side shall exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, shall co-operate in combating them and shall develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents.”
Additionally, many international law attorneys pointed to the hypocrisy of Israel’s invocation of the Oslo Accords. Demolition of Palestinian houses, administrative detention, and the annexation of areas nominally under Palestinian control are just some examples of Israel’s violations of the Oslo Accords, all of which Shaheen witnesses daily.
As a political science major attentive to the debate on the Oslo Accords and pandemic management, Sigler noted that within Israeli media and intellectual circle discourses, public officials who invoke the Accords to justify their policies are “cherry-picking what Israel wants to follow from the Oslo Accords.”
“[This situation is] quite ironic and highlights the hypocrisy in this situation because… Israel has violated [the Oslo accords] from the get go, to the extent that they have rendered them practically non-void and yet now… they are actually invoking the validity of the Oslo Accords,” Feda Abdelhamid-Nasser, Deputy Permanent Observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, said in an interview with The Politic.
Beyond the legal details of pandemic management, the structural barriers in Palestine must also be taken into account. The West Bank and Gaza are under an Israeli-controlled militarized system that renders Palestine incapable of managing basic healthcare, much less vaccine distribution during a global pandemic.
Dr. Claudia Chaufan, an associate professor of health policy at York University, argued that to understand the medical inequities in Palestine, one must examine all the interacting systemic factors. “I want to bring to people’s attention that this is a system of complete control from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea,” Chaufan said in the panel alongside Eid. “You can’t really understand what goes on in Occupied Palestine without understanding the legal, administrative, political, and colonial structure of apartheid Israel.”
The 1973 Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid defined apartheid as a deliberate and systemic act of racial discrimination to create structures of dominance. Separation of populations, segregation of public spaces (such as “settler-only roads”), and enforcement of dual legal systems are key signs of an apartheid state, as documented by the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA) report on the treatment of Palestinians. After Dr. Richard Falk, Princeton professor of international law, co-authored and released the report, it was met with immediate resistance by international supporters of Israel, and they demanded that the UN repudiate and withdraw it, which occurred very quickly.
Israel’s supporters discredit the report’s assertion that Israel is an apartheid state, asserting that the country’s discriminatory policies are based on citizenship rather than ethnicity or race. Foreign policy analyst and author Mitchell Bard claims that because Arabs “are represented in all walks of Israeli life” and serve in government and academic positions, Israel allows freedom of movement and speech and does not discriminate based on race.
However, Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are subject to military administration, unlike the non-Arab settler population, some of whom are non-citizens. Additionally, the 1.7 million Palestinian citizens of Israel are subject to administrative policies that restrict their rights of property ownership and acquisition, marriage, and immigration.
Bard also argues that 98 percent of the 5 million Palestinians in the OTP are governed and represented by the independent Palestinian Authority, who don’t afford Palestinians the rights and freedoms that Israel does for its citizens. Security actions such as checkpoints, he claims, are necessary to protect Israel’s citizens from Palestinian terrorism.
However, B’Tselem’s research shows otherwise. The Palestinian Authority (PA) has very minor influence and control over Palestinians’ lives in the OTP. Israel essentially governs Palestinians living in these areas, yet they cannot participate in the government that determines most aspects of their lives, from which roads they can drive on to what land they can own to where they can travel. Subjugation of Palestinians in the OTP is not spelled out in law, but is a de-facto reality. Palestinians are prohibited from peaceful protesting without a permit. Travel in between nominally PA-governed territories is often impossible due to Israel’s restrictions on movement. Journalist Masha Green questions how Israel can be called a democracy when “a third of its de-facto subjects” do not enjoy political rights.
Benjamin Pogrund, a journalist who studied apartheid in South Africa, wrote an article in the New York Times detailing why the Israeli occupation cannot be considered an apartheid, claiming that there is no intentional institutionalized racism in Israel’s policies.
Three years later, Pogrund revisited his earlier claims in an interview with Times of Israel. Addressing Israel’s annexation plan of the Jordan Valley and settlement areas, he argued that if Israel follows through with annexation, there is no question that it is apartheid. Israel has been constructing illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories and maintained de facto annexation of the West Bank long before declaring intentions to officially annex the territory.
Abdelhady-Nasser said that Israel’s discriminatory policies extend to healthcare, denying Palestinians access to the vaccine. “The reason this population is denied access to vaccines or medical care is because of who they are: Palestinians,” she said.
Shaheen’s family had been intimately familiar with obstruction to medical care even before the pandemic. A beloved storyteller and teacher, her grandfather spent hours recounting his college years in the grapevine-filled city of Halhul where he spent olive-perfumed summer evenings on the pastures he owned and soldiers patrolled the streets during the British mandate period.
When he began feeling ill a few years ago, he needed to go to an Israeli hospital to receive a diagnosis, since the hospitals in the West Bank lacked the proper diagnosing tools.
According to Eid, Israel’s military occupation results in layers of barriers that prevent health infrastructure from developing in the Occupied Territories. Electricity cuts, water contamination, housing crises, bans on medical materials, and poverty create structural barriers to the development of hospitals and medical centers.
“Health systems were fractured, starved for funds,” Chaufan said, recalling her visits to Palestine. “Israel is in full control of the supplies. If you’re a doctor and want to volunteer and help out, you have to go through a number of bureaucratic issues that Israel has full control over… you have to seek permission and [more often than not] will be denied.”
To go to an Israeli hospital, Shaheen’s grandfather had to complete a long application process to secure a permit. After waiting for several months to hear back, he was given a permit, but was not allowed to travel with anyone else. For an 80-year-old man who could not walk well, passing through militarized checkpoints was extremely difficult, and his family waited for him in the West Bank, praying he would travel and arrive back safely.
The permit regime and physical restrictions such as walls, fences, checkpoints divide the territory into non-continuous areas, between which Palestinians cannot travel without requesting permission from Israel. As Abdelhamid-Nasser explains, this includes restrictions on traveling to secure medical treatment—restrictions that deprived Shaheed’s grandfather of life-saving medical care.
Shaheen’s family decided that the process of obtaining a permit for every trip and passing through checkpoints was too detrimental for her grandfather’s health, so they did not seek cancer treatment from Israel. He passed away during her first year at Yale. “I learned most of the history I know from him,” recalled Shaheen, her voice heavy with emotion. “He always loved Palestine but he also witnessed so much.”
Her grandfather’s story illustrates the everyday reality of Israel’s structural barriers. “Medical apartheid is an essential part of this apartheid system,” she said.
The combination of barriers to development and obstruction of movement cripples the Palestinian health system. “The [COVID-19] virus, which knows no borders, floods the West Bank, unleashing a terrible spread that… Palestinians are simply not prepared to deal with,” said Chaufan. “And nobody in their sane mind would expect that a system that has been assaulted for decades is prepared to deal with that.”
The West Bank exists under a military occupation that renders its residents unable to access adequate healthcare. Hospital patients and staff must acquire travel permits—which are difficult to obtain—in order to access medical facilities in East Jerusalem.
Doctors cannot purchase supplies without permission from Israel, and they are often denied. Dr. Muhammad Abu Srour, a medical doctor from a refugee camp in Bethlehem, is frustrated at how difficult it is to provide for his patients. “It’s been a very difficult experience for Palestinians… under occupation… to do any process without the occupation authorities’ permission,” he said in an interview with The Politic, “like buying the different medical accessories, machines, and different medical equipment.” As a result, hospitals in the West Bank faced extreme shortages of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 tests, and ventilators.
Israeli authorities also dismantle initiatives to provide access to healthcare in the West Bank. In March 2020, Israeli Civil Administration officials confiscated the tents of a field clinic in the West Bank. Ambulance and emergency medical access are often denied to Palestinians.
The healthcare crisis is even worse in Gaza.
Gaza is governed by the elected militant Islamist group Hamas. Hamas engaged in violent conflicts with Israel and Egypt, and both countries have placed Gaza under a blockade. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights warned that Gaza will face serious consequences because of its exhausted healthcare facilities due to Israel’s air, land, and sea blockade for the past 14 years.
“Even humanitarian aid to Gaza has to go through Israel,” said Shaheen. “Israel controls [most of] the borders. There is nothing that enters or exits the country without Israel’s approval.”
Because of the siege placed on Gaza, everything must be approved by Israel before entering the city, including medical supplies. The Gaza Strip has been facing a severe lack of oxygen machines, ventilators, PPE, and hygiene products. Thirty-two percent of basic necessity drugs are not available. Israel has continuously imposed restrictions on these basic supplies from entering the Gaza Strip. Even vaccine doses are restricted from entering: on Feb 15, 2021, Israeli authorities denied the entry of 2,000 doses of the vaccine from the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
With the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases, hospitals in Gaza are ill-prepared to handle the influx of sick patients. “Gaza is collapsing,” said Eid. “It only has 40 intensive care unit beds and 65 ventilators for a population of 2 million… Gaza’s healthcare system was collapsing even before the pandemic.” For a city in which 5,000 people live per square kilometer, there are simply not enough places to treat all the COVID-19 patients.
But the world is noticing.
On January 14, 2021, the OHCHR released a statement that “this differential access to necessary health care in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century is unacceptable.” During the same month, 15 Palestinian, Israeli, and international health and human rights organizations signed a demand that the Israeli government fulfill its legal obligation and provide vaccinations for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. In March, the UN Secretary-General’s envoy for the Middle East peace process urged the UN Security Council to support Palestinian vaccination efforts, and the UN General Assembly appointed experts who pressured Israel to distribute vaccines to the OPT. Journalists have published pieces that call out Israel for its human rights violation, in addition to the corruption within the Palestinian Authority.
Shaheen thinks this international response is long overdue.
“I was shocked that people were shocked about the vaccine [inequities],” said Shaheen. “I was like, what did you expect? The pandemic intensified everything… it was eye-opening.”
Sigler was not surprised either—he grew up in Israel and has read extensively about apartheid systems and resulting healthcare inequities.
“It’s very easy to portray the situation as both sides of the conflict without really addressing the gross power imbalance,” he said. “I felt that something like the COVID pandemic really shows that imbalance.”
Now, 14 months into the pandemic, both Shaheen and Sigler lead parallel lives at Yale. They attend Zoom seminars from the desks of their dorms, stress out over p-sets at Blue State, and chat with friends in the dining hall line. When they go back home, though, their worlds diverge once again—and Shaheen carries that knowledge with her constantly.
“No matter what spaces Palestinians and Israelis reach, they will always be different,” she reflected. “Our access to the vaccine, to visas, everything is so different. So even when I try to connect to these places and even if I try to make Yale my home, it’s very hard.”
For Shaheen, advocating for her people is not merely a matter of political debate. “I see it beyond being Palestinian: I see it as a female, as a person of color, as a Muslim,” she told The Politic.
For Sigler, actively learning about and fighting for Palestinian rights feels like a responsibility. “I don’t feel consciously okay with sleeping well while knowing what’s happening close to my home,” he said. He is involved in progressive politics in Israel and actively applies knowledge from his classes to critically think about the disparities he has witnessed at home.
Despite all that separates them, Shaheen and Sigler are using their contradictory experiences to reach similar goals and navigate their careers through the lens of their past experiences, their aim to advocate for a just world that unites them—mirroring how today’s challenges in public health and beyond require collective action.
Wealthy and developed nations will overcome the pandemic and begin repairing their infrastructure and economy. It is important, however, that the international community ensures that no one is left behind to suffer the shockwaves of the pandemic. Public health responses should create global alliances that commit to equitable distribution of treatment and vaccines.
Public health is inherently collective. To fight this pandemic and future health crises, the international community should ensure that public health strategy is inclusive of vulnerable populations. After all, the pandemic is not truly over until it is over for everyone. The future of public health necessitates that Palestinians—and all historically silenced and oppressed people—are not abandoned as we move forward in creating more just, equitable global health responses.