JERUSALEM – The Israeli government has pledged to send thousands of coronavirus vaccines to foreign allies, reigniting the debate over Israel’s responsibilities to those closest to home: the Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
On Tuesday, the governments of the Czech Republic and Honduras confirmed that Israel had promised them every 5,000 doses of vaccines manufactured by Moderna. Israeli media reported that Hungary and Guatemala would receive a similar number, but the Hungarian and Israeli governments declined to comment, while the Guatemalan government did not respond to a request for comment.
Donations are the latest example of a new expression of soft power: vaccine diplomacy, in which vaccine-rich countries seek to reward or influence those who have little access to them.
In a dispute over influence in Asia, China and India donated thousands of doses of vaccines to their neighbors. The United Arab Emirates did the same for allies like Egypt. And last week, Israel even promised to buy tens of thousands of doses on behalf of the Syrian government, a long-standing enemy, in return for the return of an Israeli civilian detained in Syria.
The vaccines distributed on Tuesday were given without conditions, but they tacitly reward recent gestures by recipient countries that implicitly accept Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians consider their capital. Guatemala moved its embassy to Jerusalem, while Honduras pledged to do so. Hungary set up a trade mission in Jerusalem, while the Czech Republic promised to open a diplomatic office there.
Israel gave at least one injection of the two-dose vaccine, made by Pfizer, to just over half of its own population of nine million – including people living in Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories – making it the world leader in vaccine launches . This left the Israeli government able to strengthen its international relations with its surplus stock of modern vaccines.
But the move has angered Palestinians because it suggests that Israel’s allies are of higher priority than Palestinians living under Israeli control in the occupied territories, almost all of whom have not yet received a vaccine.
Israel has promised at least double the doses to countries far away from what it has promised so far to the nearly five million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli government says the Palestinian Authority was given the responsibility to organize its own health care system in the 1990s, after the signing of the Oslo Accords that gave the Palestinian leadership limited autonomy in parts of the occupied territories.
Israel gave 2,000 doses of vaccines to the Palestinian Authority and promised 3,000 more – symbolic numbers, given the size of the Palestinian population. And although Israel has suggested that more can come, it has yet to formalize any details.
“A few weeks ago, there were doubts about whether we had enough vaccines for our own people,” said Mark Regev, an aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Now that it seems so, we can be more frank with our neighbors.”
Regev added: “The virus will not stop at the border and we have a very strong interest that the Palestinians may be on top of that.”
But on Tuesday night, an Israeli security official said that the military department that coordinates between Israel and the Palestinian leadership had not yet received authorization from the government to deliver more vaccines to the Palestinian Authority.
In any case, human rights watchdogs say that Israel should organize a systematic vaccine program in the occupied territories, rather than sporadically distributing a few thousand pieces at a time. They cite the Fourth Geneva Convention, which requires an occupying power to coordinate with local authorities to maintain public health within occupied territory, including during epidemics.
The watchdog groups also note that the Israeli government not only controls all imports into the West Bank and Gaza, but also, in recent presentations to the International Criminal Court, has challenged Palestinian claims to a sovereign state.
“It is a system of oppression,” said Salem Barahmeh, executive director of the Palestinian Institute for Public Diplomacy, a defense group based in Ramallah.
“It says a lot about a regime,” added Barahmeh, “who is willing to send vaccines to the other side of the world, potentially for an exchange, and not to offer the vaccine to the millions of Palestinians living under the Israeli occupation regime.”
The report was contributed by Gabby Sobelman and Adam Rasgon.