Can Israel afford to neglect Palestinian vaccinations?
With an election on the horizon, can Netenyahu see political gain in vaccinating the Palestinians, or will this be another false start to the already volatile region? Adeem Younis explains his options.
Israel's vaccination programme has become the international gold standard. Yet a few kilometres away, Palestinians are still suffering from the pandemic's fallout. With the virus tearing through densely populated Gaza and the West Bank, healthcare systems are on the verge of crumbling. Israel should take this opportunity to offer vaccination support to the Palestinians ? not only for their sake, but for the sake of future peace in the region.
As I type this, the West Bank and Gaza are going through a surge of coronavirus infections, with 165,900 new cases and 1,756 deaths in the two territories. The rate of infection is around 30 percent in Gaza and the West Bank, in comparison with Israel's 7.4 percent. Considering Gaza only has around 70 ICU beds for a high-density population of 2 million, it is clear decisive political action needs to be taken immediately to curb the spread of the virus.
Worse, the Palestinian economy was suffering even before the pandemic hit. A recent report from UNCTAD highlights this, with the West Bank registering its lowest growth rates since 2012. In Gaza, 80 percent of the population is dependent on unstable internal food assistance, healthcare and drinking water. As the international community tightens its purse strings, donor support in 2021 looks set to be the lowest in about a decade. This will inevitably increase unemployment levels, already at a staggering 33 percent as of 2019. These are textbook conditions for extremism, and Israel should be mindful of that.
Such economic upheaval, as is being seen in the Palestinian territories, is a gift in the eyes of terrorist recruiters. An emboldened Hamas would not only pose a threat to Israeli civilians living in close proximity to the blockade, but to Benjamin Netanyahu's political ambitions.
So, in the coming months, with Netanyahu set for his toughest election campaign yet, it makes perfect sense for him to extend Israel's vaccination capacity to the Palestinians ? there's the historic opportunity to make some real progress in the stagnated peace process. It is also important to remember that public opinion in Israel increasingly supports finding a solution to the conflict, with 50 percent of the population believing a solution to the conflict to be 'very important', but only 2 percent believing a solution to be 'very likely.' Using the olive branch of vaccines would likely help make progress on the peace process, exceed the expectations of the population, and reap benefits for Netanyahu in the polls.
Some would say that resentment is too deep amongst the Palestinians to be smoothed over by one humanitarian gesture. It is also true that many Palestinians would be suspicious of an Israeli vaccination and have not requested any healthcare support from Israel. However, vaccine abstinence on political grounds strikes me as unlikely, it's simply a luxury most Palestinians do not have.
Additionally, as the virus has shown that it does not respect borders – even borders as secure as Israel's – Israelis are dependent on Palestinians if they wish to reach any level of herd immunity, with thousands of Israelis passing through the barrier every day for work or military reasons.
On logistics, current Palestinian policy is focused on the COVAX scheme, which merely promises to vaccinate 20% of the population, and looks set only to arrive later this year. Alongside this, once you factor in mutations, it's clear the Israeli vaccination effort could end up being in vain if Israel does not start vaccinating the Palestinians soon.
As a result, it doesn't matter that the Oslo Accord of 1993 to 1995 includes clauses stating that it is the Palestinian Authority's obligation to vaccinate its own population. On their own, their resources are simply not sufficient.
This is a defining moment for Netanyahu and for Israel, there's the opportunity to provide humanitarian support to people who desperately need it. Successfully vaccinating the Palestinians would be an enormous humanitarian triumph and a landmark achievement in the road to peace for this long-disputed region. It would be a win-win for all parties involved – and a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable people in the world.
Adeem Younis is founder and trustee of the charity Penny Appeal. He is a recipient of the Points of Light award, established by President Bush in 1989.
WEDNESDAY 20 JAN 2021