Senator Anne Urquhart – condemned Israel for failing to provide Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank with access to COVID-19 vaccinations

photo of Senator Anne Urquhart
March 16, 2021

There are around six million Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank—six million people who face the continued tyranny and death from a pandemic, and many of them live or work literally metres from vaccinated Israeli citizens. They should not have to wait. I’ve said many times in this place, and I’ll say it again today, that Australia has been a friend of Israel since its creation. As a friend, we must respectfully tell our friends when their actions are wrong.

Full speech

Senator URQUHART (TasmaniaOpposition Whip in the Senate) (20:57): I rise to speak about the current wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths amongst the Palestinian people and to implore the state of Israel to do more and do better when it comes to the health and wellbeing of Palestinians. Two days ago, Palestine recorded 2,142 new coronavirus cases in the previous 24 hours, 15 deaths and 2,169 recoveries. That was according to the daily update by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. To date, so far as we can ascertain, amongst Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza there have been 209,304 confirmed COVID cases and 2,268 deaths. With the number of people falling ill, the number of hospitalisations and the number of deaths increasing on a daily basis in February and early March, Palestinian authorities were forced to take unprecedented measures. In February a new lockdown was imposed across the West Bank as Palestinians faced this fresh surge of coronavirus cases and continued to wait for a proper vaccine rollout.

World Health Organization data shows that, among Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, the case fatality rate is 1.1 per cent. That’s the proportion of reported infections which result in a person dying. In Israel it is far below that, at 0.7 per cent. The Reuters news agency reports that Palestinian hospitals are overfull and intensive care units are operating at 100 per cent capacity with coronavirus patients in some areas of the Israel-occupied West Bank. The Palestinian Prime Minister blamed the lockdown on the struggle to get vaccines delivered to the territory. To date, Palestinians in the West Bank have received 10,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine. A separate delivery of 20,000 Russian vaccines has been delivered to the other Palestinian territory, Gaza. The international Covax scheme—the global initiative backed by the World Health Organization to get vaccines to poorer nations—should cover up to 20 per cent of vaccine requirements for the Palestinians, but it has yet to provide any. Delivery is expected soon.

None of these efforts at vaccination are going to come anywhere near vaccinating the Palestinian population, estimated at around six million. Palestinian leaders say that they can’t afford either the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccines. As Palestinian hospitals fill up, in Israel the bars and restaurants have reopened. With four million of its almost seven million adult population fully vaccinated and another one million awaiting their second dose, media outlets have described Israelis in Tel Aviv as ‘immersed in a carnival of post-pandemic rebirth that has left its citizens giddy with their new freedoms’. Restaurants are fully booked, bars are packed and traffic has returned to its infamous snail pace. Life, dreary and frightening for a year, is back to normal because Israel has one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns.

Indeed, Israel right now has the highest proportion of vaccinations in the world. As at 22 December it had administered the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to 83 citizens out of every 10,000. By 14 March it had fully vaccinated 46.5 per cent of its population and 57 per cent had received at least one dose. Almost 90 per cent of Israelis over the age of 50 have been fully vaccinated. The program has inoculated more than 4.6 million people with at least the first injection—the fastest per capita pace of any country. It’s an extraordinary undertaking. The Israeli government has acted with swift determination to curb the serious wave of disease and death and the stubbornly high infection rates—a determination that puts the Australian government to shame. So much for us being at the head of the queue.

Infection rates and hospitalisation rates in Israel have plummeted. One study has found a 41 per cent drop in new COVID cases among those over 60. Hospital administrators have confirmed that fewer elderly people are flooding into COVID wards. The number of COVID patients in one facility has declined by two-thirds in two months. But, in the midst of this extraordinary effort, Israel has distributed a tiny 7,000 vaccine doses to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza. This is one per cent of people.

A further 10,000 doses arrived from Russia, but Israel delayed them getting into Gaza, holding them up for days at the border. In coordination with Egypt, Israel maintains a strict blockade on Gaza. In mid-February, during debate in the Knesset, some Israeli lawmakers said that the government should only allow vaccines into Gaza in return for concessions from Hamas. Ahmad Tibi, a parliamentarian from Israel’s Arab minority, said: ‘Even discussion about withholding vaccines from people who needed them was shocking. Your children will be ashamed.’ That is what he is reported to have said.

In Palestinian territories captured by Israel in the 1967 war the vast majority of the population has yet to be inoculated, and Israel has faced criticism at home and abroad for not providing more vaccines. In the last few weeks, under pressure, it has begun vaccinating Palestinians working in Israel, workers that are needed to maintain the Israeli economy, but not their families. After international pressure, Israel agreed just recently to transfer just 5,000 Moderna vaccine doses to Palestinian medical workers in the West Bank. It’s not enough and it is tragic. A report by the World Bank says that Palestinians will need more financial and logistical help in order to cover 60 per cent of the population.

In recent weeks the Israeli government has faced criticism from the UN Human Rights Council, US Democrats, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty for failing to meet its obligations as an occupying power. The United Nations human rights body has released a statement saying that it’s Israel’s responsibility to provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccinations for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. The fourth Geneva convention states that an occupying power has responsibility for ‘public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventative measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious disease and epidemics’. The UN body says that differential access is morally and legally unacceptable under international law laid out in the Geneva conventions on the regulation of occupied territories.

Members of the Israeli government point to the 1993 and 1995 Oslo accords, which Israel signed with the Palestine Liberation Organization. They say that these accords give the Palestinian Authority oversight of public health under the principles of self-determination. And the Palestinian authorities point to another part of those accords, which says:

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.

But international law takes priority over these accords. Despite Israel’s position on the issue, the Fourth Geneva Convention is specific about the duty of the occupying power to provide health care.

There are around six million Palestinians in Gaza and the occupied West Bank—six million people who face the continued tyranny and death from a pandemic, and many of them live or work literally metres from vaccinated Israeli citizens. They should not have to wait. I’ve said many times in this place, and I’ll say it again today, that Australia has been a friend of Israel since its creation. As a friend, we must respectfully tell our friends when their actions are wrong. They must not stand idly by. We must help them find a different path. And as a friend we must not allow the last chances of a long-term peaceful resolution to be lost. Such a resolution requires a clear affirmation that Palestinians must have equal rights to Israelis, and equal rights means equal rights to vaccination in the midst of a pandemic.

Israel has a surplus of COVID vaccines—so much of a surplus that its Prime Minister seriously floated the idea of sending that surplus to countries that have moved or will move embassies or offices to Jerusalem, Guatemala, Honduras, the Czech Republic or Hungary, literally giving it away to friendly countries while Palestinians go without. It is my hope that Israel will understand that it has a clear obligation to send vaccines to the Palestinian Authority. Differential access is morally and legally unacceptable under international law. So, today I urge Israel to donate to the Palestinians the extra doses it has ordered but does not need, and I urge them do that with speed and efficiency. Beyond that, I urge Israel to work with Palestinian authorities to ensure the vaccination of the Palestinian population with the same determination, resources and expertise that they’ve demonstrated to the world with the Israeli population.

Link to parliamentary Hansard