COVID Among the Palestinians

‘Brand Israel’ advertises its vaccination success

In 2020 the world was united by the imminent threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic. It brought to the surface questions of community, international cooperation, and the interconnectedness of people around the globe. Without immunity, the pandemic occasioned reflection on the nature of privilege within societies and between states. Even the beneficiaries of privilege seemed more willing to recognise not only inequality but also the structural basis of entitlement. The shared reality engendered by the pandemic—of suffering, deaths and fear—offered the possibility of re-examining inequalities of all kinds. 

Yet with the approval of several coronavirus vaccines, this shared consciousness of crisis has given way to the scramble to secure vaccine supplies. Vaccination has reasserted the realities of wealth and privilege, restored hierarchies of discrimination, and dispensed with any continuing need to engage with global interconnectedness: boundaries and divisions that a pandemic cared nothing for, between citizens and refugees, the housed and the homeless, the occupiers and the oppressed, have all been resurrected by the advent of manufactured immunity. The English-language media is now glued to vaccination outcomes in countries first to inoculate their populations. At the forefront of this news has been Israel, which to date has vaccinated the most significant proportion of its population and is being heralded across the world for leading the vaccination race. 

The birth of Brand Israel 

The news from Israel is always political: it is a state crucially aware of its public relations. Both prior to the creation of the state, and subsequently, Zionism has had an eye to image, building a truly remarkable hasbara (public relations) machinery. Against the violent backdrop of Operation Cast Lead—a bombardment of Gaza over the northern winter of 2008–09 that killed over one thousand Palestinians, injured tens of thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless—it appeared that the Palestinian case would finally achieve greater traction in Western states. It was in the wake of Cast Lead, for example, that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS), first called for by Palestinian civil society in 2005, garnered more wide-reaching recognition and international support than it had previously enjoyed. 

Following the international horror occasioned by Cast Lead, in November 2012 the UN General Assembly voted to grant Palestine non-member observer status in that body. Unsurprisingly, Israel sought to oppose this bid, arguing that it circumvented proper diplomatic process. However, when it became apparent that Resolution 67/19 would be approved, Israel and the United States tried to insist that Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, agree to waive the right for Palestine to become a signatory to the International Criminal Court (ICC)–notwithstanding that this was the chief substantive right offered by the resolution. One has to consider why Israel was so concerned to extract this promise from Abbas; Israel has consistently maintained that it has nothing to hide, that its army is the most moral in the world, and that it acts exactly as any other democracy would act presented with the same set of circumstances. Yet the possibility that Palestinians would have recourse to the ICC suggested, to the contrary, that Israel did have something to worry about, and that it feared international assessment of its conduct. Israel is well aware of the importance of its international image; Resolution 67/19, in according Palestinians the right to commence proceedings in the ICC, communicated to Israel that international perceptions had started to shift, and that its narrative dominance could no longer be taken for granted. 

Rather than rein in its treatment of Palestinians in Gaza, or anywhere, Israel launched a new campaign, ‘Brand Israel’, to use the term employed by Ali Abunimah, founder of the Electronic Intifada. Brand Israel was an attempt to wrest the moral ground away from Palestinians and promote a progressive image of Israel, highlighting, for example, its environmental consciousness and queer-friendliness. Notwithstanding Israel’s concerns about Palestinian admission to the ICC or support for BDS, at an institutional level Israel has succeeded in the latter part of the last decade in reasserting control over state-level approaches to the situation in Israel/Palestine. Most recently, the question of Palestine has been removed from the international agenda almost entirely through a series of agreements brokered with the Arab world during the late Trump administration. These agreements have been just the most recent head of a long-term strategy to deflect attention from Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and its responsibility, both historical and current, for their situation. 

Yet the success of Brand Israel is not just in the prosecution and advancement of a photogenic public image but also reliant on the military-industrial complex, and what Jeff Halper has described as ‘securocratic’ war, which has ensured many nation states’ determination to sidestep condemnation of Israel. The state has also worked to discredit the advancement of the Palestinian case through such strategies as BDS. Rather, there has been a proliferation of new legislation, notably in the United States and the United Kingdom, which has sought to criminalise and penalise support for BDS and expand the definition of anti-Semitism, all of which is aimed at silencing criticism of Israel. In its totality, Brand Israel has operated through positive public campaigning while receiving reinforcement through diplomatic back channels and efforts through legal means to obfuscate Palestinians’ enunciation of their claims. (Another aspect of this is the strategy of lawfare, in which advocates for Palestinian claims, particularly in academia, have been confronted with expensive and spurious litigation that is intended to exhaust defendants and warn off other would-be advocates.) 

For these reasons Brand Israel ought to make us wary of the congratulatory coverage of Israel’s vaccination program. While the Israeli position on Palestinians during the early stages of the pandemic was already disturbing, the arrival of the vaccine yet again revealed Israel’s callous—and through both legal and ethical frameworks, inaccurate—claim that Palestinians are not its responsibility.

Pandemic in the Occupied Palestinian Territories

In March 2020, B’Tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, reported that the Israeli military had confiscated tents housing a Palestinian field clinic for coronavirus patients.[1]Israeli Military Confiscates Palestinian Field Clinic for Virus Victims—B’Tselem’s “Shocking” Report’, Mondoweiss, 28 March 2020 … Continue reading It was shocking, in the face of this health threat, that Israel would strip Palestinians of any capacity they might have to manage the pandemic. It also defied the logic of Israel’s interests, since stripping Palestinians of the ability to control the spread of the virus would surely endanger Israel’s own citizens. While states such as Australia might enforce borders with stringency, in Israel borders are chaotic, owing to decades of settlement-building in the West Bank and the infrastructure sustained by the Israeli Defence Force of occupation, which in practice saturates the West Bank, regardless of the theoretical ‘Areas’ for control by the Palestinian Authority designated in the Oslo Accords. For all Israel’s desire to physically and psychologically remove Palestinians from Israeli lives, in the West Bank Palestinians and Israelis are pressed up against one another. 

As the pandemic raged, it appeared that Israel’s disregard for Palestinian life, an institutionally entrenched position, would be costly not only for Palestinians but for Israelis too. In the absence of reliable treatment or vaccination, it seemed that the most pragmatic position Israel could take would be to safeguard the health of the people whose land they occupy, if not for their sake then for the sake of the hundreds of thousands of proximate Jewish Israelis. If it was quite conceivable that Israel would allow Palestinians to suffer at the hands of the virus, it was unbelievable that it would countenance the possibility of spread to its citizens. The pandemic seemed to offer an opportunity for change, if not systemically then at least in the recognition that Palestinian infection rates and Israeli life were connected. 

Vaccination and Israel’s position at international law

However, the arrival of the vaccine has foreclosed any necessity for Israel to reflect on its obligation to the population whose territory it occupies. The Israeli health minister, Yuli Edelstein, articulated this position in an interview with BBC journalist Andrew Marr, stating: ‘if it is the responsibility of the Israeli Health Minister to take care of the Palestinians what exactly is the responsibility of the Palestinian Health Minister? To take care of the dolphins in the Mediterranean?’[2]Philip Weiss, ‘Israeli Health Minister Likens His Obligation to Vaccinate Palestinians to Palestinians’ Responsibility to Care for “Dolphins in the Mediterranean”’, Mondoweiss, 24 January … Continue reading Israel’s abdication of responsibility is all too common. In the same interview, Marr raised the framework of international law and specifically Israel’s responsibility to Palestinians under the Fourth Geneva Convention, citing explicit obligations in relation to the responsibility of an occupying power ‘to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics in cooperation with local authorities’ (Article 56). Edelstein elided this charge, invoking first the Oslo agreements (which Marr noted are still superseded by international law), before offering his dolphin analogy. 

While this is neither remarkable nor a new strategy for Israel, it should communicate to international onlookers the dire situation for Palestinians at the mercy of this occupying power. Israel has lobbied for decades to obfuscate the framework of international law and encouraged its allies to join in this obfuscation. At international law, Israel’s obligations to Palestinian residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are governed by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Yet in recent decades Israel has consistently attempted to shirk that responsibility and deny the characterisation of this relation at international law. This has occurred both within Israel’s own legal system (the Supreme Court has, for example, stated that the unique length of Israel’s occupation ‘requires the laws be conformed to meet reality on the ground’ and that this approach takes precedence over the relevant international law)[3]‘High Court Sanctions Looting’, B’Tselem, 16 January 2012;  https://www.btselem.org/settlements/20120116_hcj_ruling_on_quarries_in_wb and through international diplomacy. 

For example, in 2014, despite longstanding international consensus on the status of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’, the Australian attorney-general, George Brandis, stated that the then Abbott government did not consider it to be occupied, ending a long-held bipartisan approach.[4]Jordana Silverstein, ‘Brandis Out of Step with International Consensus on East Jerusalem’, The Conversation, 10 June 2014; … Continue reading This was followed by the Trump administration’s decision to relocate the US embassy to Jerusalem, not incidentally timed to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of the Nakba. Neither of these positions is supported at international law. Yet Israel has worked to circumvent its obligations under international law, in conjunction with a strategy that, as Eyal Weizman argues, has pushed the limits of the law and of violence, to extend what ‘can be inflicted by a state and be internationally tolerated’. This, Weizman observes, becomes ‘the new threshold of what can be done to people’.[5]Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, London: Verso, 2011, p. 96.

Without consequence 

Many defenders of Palestinian rights attempt to appeal to Israel through international legal frameworks. This is what Marr was doing when he invoked Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. This is the framework invoked by UN investigative bodies and human rights organisations in the wake of the multiple devastating bombardments of Gaza that have occurred over the course of the last decade. Yet, while law has a place, it is increasingly in respect of advocacy elsewhere. With respect to Israel itself, as this short accounting of recent history conveys, it is useless to confront that state with its breaches of international law or its obligations. Israel doesn’t care, and indeed it has been allowed not to, because it never suffers any meaningful repercussions for its breaches. 

In the instance of a pandemic and the supply of vaccines, it is important to recognise that Israeli occupation means Palestinians do not have control of crossings, of sea or of airspace. This is how Israel has blockaded Gaza for over a decade, refusing even to allow entry to humanitarian aid supplies (a situation made infamous in Israel’s attack on the Marvi Marmara, the lead ship in the 2010 Gaza Freedom Flotilla, as it attempted to deliver much-needed supplies to Gaza by sea). The Palestinian Authority is currently working with the World Health Organization to secure vaccine supplies. In late January, +972 reported that while Israel had agreed to transfer vaccines, it had refused to provide any of them.[6]Tania Hary, ‘The Absurdity of Demanding Gaza Get Its Own COVID-19 Vaccinations’, +972, 27 January 2021, https://www.972mag.com/gaza-covid-vaccine-israel/By mid-February, reports confirmed that Israel had permitted a meagre supply—one thousand vaccinations—of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine to reach Gaza, an area with a population in excess of two million.[7]Aaron Boxerman, ‘After Delay Israel Allows Transfer of First COVID Vaccine Doses to Gaza’, The Times of Israel, 17 February 2021, … Continue reading It is further reported that Israeli lawmakers have proposed that supply be contingent on extracting political concessions from Hamas.[8]Oliver Holmes and Hazem Balousha, ‘Israel allows 2,000 Covid Vaccine Doses in to Gaza after Hold-up’, The Guardian, 18 February 2021, … Continue reading The inadequate and conditional nature of relief for Palestinians again makes plain the true nature of relations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Access to vaccines is just the latest Israeli strategy to strangle the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories. Whatever Palestinians might negotiate, it is ultimately Israel that determines Palestinian access to supplies. In celebrating Israel’s lead in the vaccination race, the world once again indicates its complicity in the public-relations strategy of Brand Israel. And the world also indicates its complicity in the neglect and institutional violence that will surely see many more Palestinians die before this pandemic has run its course. 

References

References
1 Israeli Military Confiscates Palestinian Field Clinic for Virus Victims—B’Tselem’s “Shocking” Report’, Mondoweiss, 28 March 2020 https://mondoweiss.net/2020/03/israeli-military-confiscates-palestinian-field-clinic-for-virus-victims-btselems-shocking-report/;
2 Philip Weiss, ‘Israeli Health Minister Likens His Obligation to Vaccinate Palestinians to Palestinians’ Responsibility to Care for “Dolphins in the Mediterranean”’, Mondoweiss, 24 January 2021;  https://mondoweiss.net/2021/01/israeli-health-minister-likens-his-obligation-to-vaccinate-palestinians-to-taking-care-of-dolphins-in-the-mediterranean/
3 ‘High Court Sanctions Looting’, B’Tselem, 16 January 2012;  https://www.btselem.org/settlements/20120116_hcj_ruling_on_quarries_in_wb
4 Jordana Silverstein, ‘Brandis Out of Step with International Consensus on East Jerusalem’, The Conversation, 10 June 2014; https://theconversation.com/brandis-out-of-step-with-international-consensus-on-east-jerusalem-27689
5 Eyal Weizman, The Least of All Possible Evils: Humanitarian Violence from Arendt to Gaza, London: Verso, 2011, p. 96.
6 Tania Hary, ‘The Absurdity of Demanding Gaza Get Its Own COVID-19 Vaccinations’, +972, 27 January 2021, https://www.972mag.com/gaza-covid-vaccine-israel/
7 Aaron Boxerman, ‘After Delay Israel Allows Transfer of First COVID Vaccine Doses to Gaza’, The Times of Israel, 17 February 2021, https://www.timesofisrael.com/after-delay-israel-allows-transfer-of-first-1000-covid-vaccine-doses-to-gaza/
8 Oliver Holmes and Hazem Balousha, ‘Israel allows 2,000 Covid Vaccine Doses in to Gaza after Hold-up’, The Guardian, 18 February 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/feb/17/israel-allows-1000-covid-vaccines-into-blockaded-gaza-after-hold-up

About the author

Micaela Sahhar

Micaela Sahhar is a Melbourne-based writer, poet and researcher.

More articles by Micaela Sahhar

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