Matthias Kennes, a medic with the humanitarian and political group Doctors without Borders has chronicled his experiences as a medical volunteer working to help Palestinians manage the Covid-19 pandemic in the Palestinian Authority-controlled areas of the former West Bank of Jordan.
In an opinion piece titled, "Israel and Palestine: The despair of cruel vaccination inequalities", Kennes expresses his shock and frustration at the woefully low number of vaccines in the Palestinian Authority (PA) controlled areas of the West Bank.
His despair hits a raw nerve. Kennes writes: "If asked why vulnerable people cannot be vaccinated in Palestine, I do not know how to answer. It is inexplicable and unbelievable. Worse than that, it is unjust and cruel."
His outrage is shared by most Israelis - Jews and Arabs, Christians, Druze and others alike. But what most Israelis understand, and what Kennes gets wrong, is the responsible party for the Palestinian public's pain and suffering.
Had Kennes cared to review the Oslo Interim Peace Accords signed on 28 September 1995 and internationally witnessed and guaranteed by the EU, Russia, the United States and others, he would be aware of the following facts:
1. Israel is neither occupying the Gaza Strip nor the Palestinian areas of the disputed West Bank. Israel withdrew from these areas pursuant to the 1993-5 Oslo Accords, when security and all civilian powers and responsibilities were transferred to the Palestinian Authority, as an internationally recognised proto-state. The Palestinian Authority is recognised as a state by 140 members of the UN General Assembly. [Editor's note: Israel prefers to call the Gaza Strip and West Bank disputed territories]
2. The misquoted and oft quoted Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 does not apply to the PA administered areas since Israel is not in control.
3. The Oslo Accords established an agreed upon legal administration governing the territories. This regime overrides any other previous legal arrangement.
4. In Article 17 of the Oslo Accords Civilian Protocol, he fully empowered and budgeted Palestinian Authority took upon itself all responsibilities for health care in the territories under its control. This includes vaccination of the Palestinian population against epidemics.
5. Israel and the Palestinians agreed to exchange information and cooperate regarding health issues. Nothing more, nothing less.
6. Therefore, Israel is under no legal obligation to vaccinate the Palestinian population in the territories. In the case of Covid-19, the Palestinian Minister of Health, Dr Mai al-Kaila, who herself was vaccinated by Israel, had refused to purchase vaccines from Israel to avoid being called a "traitor", for breaking the Palestinian Authority boycott of all cooperation with Israel. Israel may, for epidemiological and other medical and moral reasons, provide vaccinations to residents of the territories. However, it is under no legal obligation to do so.
In the context of the above points, we in neighboring Israel are shocked and dismayed at Mahmoud Abbas's mistaken priorities, mismanagement, and corruption.
Kennes' humanitarian efforts to help Palestinians under PA rule is commendable. However, his ignorance or willful blindness of PA legal and medical responsibility for vaccinating the Palestinian public and his blaming Israel are unacceptable.
It bears emphasising that for the past 25 years, since 28 September 1995, the Palestinian Authority assumed full responsibility for the national future of the Palestinian people in the West Bank. Palestinian group Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007.
PA governmental control and Israel's withdrawal from those areas under PA jurisdiction were carried out with the signing of the internationally witnessed and guaranteed Oslo II interim peace accords. This legally binding diplomatic agreement refutes Kennes' ill-advised and misleading allegation of Israeli military occupation that he erroneously asserts is responsible for vaccinating the Palestinian public in the West Bank and Gaza.
To be sure, Palestinians and Israelis and all peoples deserve equal access to the Covid-19 vaccinations.
Kennes is correct that Israel has acted efficiently as the world's leading vaccinator of its nine-million citizens, all of whom are guaranteed equal care by law, including, of course, some 2 000 000 Arab Muslim Israeli citizens. In fact, Israel has vaccinated more Arab Muslim men, women and children as a percent of its total population than any other Arab country in the Middle East region.
In Article 17 of the Oslo II accords, it was agreed that a fully independent Palestinian Authority and its, fully operational health ministry would conduct its own policies and provide healthcare. This agreement applies to the PA's legal, economic and moral responsibility for vaccinating its 1.5 million residents in the West Bank and 1.8 million residents in Gaza.
Kennes should ask the right questions.
Why has the Palestinian Authority boycotted Arab allies, that signed full normalisation peace agreements with Israel in 2020, and now enjoy full professional and civic cooperation in areas from technology to healthcare, including battling the Covid-19 epidemic?
I recently returned from my first visit to the United Arab Emirates. I was struck by expressions of disgust by UAE leaders toward the PA leadership for turning back planeloads and millions of dollars of UAE healthcare assistance to fight Covid-19 in 2020, just because the UAE planes landed at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport.
One UAE leader who asked to remain anonymous noted that the PA leadership "lost them" with their refusal of UAE health assistance. A senior US official who spoke with me about the Arab frustration with the Palestinian leadership's snub of Arab countries said that PA leaders turned their backs on their former Arab allies for normalising relations with Israel. The US official said "...the UAE) has left the train station together with Israel, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan. At the same time, the Palestinian leadership is still sitting on the station's floor, complaining about and condemning their Jewish neighbors".
Kennes should demand PA accountability to its own citizens.
PA Health Minister Dr Mai al-Kaila reportedly confirmed that the PA has not asked Israel for assistance in supplying a vaccine. As an independent pre-state entity, the PA turned to various states and international organisations for complimentary vaccines. Kennes and other Palestinian advocates have refused to accord "agency" to the PA government. This distracts international attention from the PA's independent calculations.
As Said Aburish, Bassem Eid, and other Palestinian human rights critics of PA corruption have documented, the Palestinian government has engaged in massive financial corruption for years. (There are rumours that Suha Arafat has billions of dollars of PA funds deposited in European and other foreign accounts). These funds could have been used to finance immediate acquisition of the Covid-19 vaccine.
I write this response as one who for the past 25 years has worked with Palestinians in the West Bank and helps provide financial and medical assistance where the Palestinian insurance and medical authorities have fallen short.
Kennes apparently has been out of touch with the Palestinian leadership.
In mid-January 2021 Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh announced that the PA had contracted with four separate Covid-19 vaccine producers. The PA is due to receive a sufficient shipment of of Covid-19 vaccines by March 2021, well ahead of many Western states.
Among the vaccines is the Sputnik V, co-developed by Israel's Hadassah Hospital together with Russia's health authorities. Had Kennes spent more time on the ground in the Palestinian-governed areas, talking with officials and touring the West Bank, he would likely have been informed that the PA delay in securing vaccines was a result of its internal decisions.
The PA sought to receive an entire Covid-19 vaccine inventory free of charge. International organisations and state powers were unwilling to comply. Israel supplied PA government officials with an initial batch. Some 20 percent of vaccines are expected to be donated to the PA, accounting for months-long delays in PA acquisition. Had the PA asked Israel for assistance, the PA would be farther along in vaccinating its public.
In a recent fact-based teachable moment for Kennes and other Palestinian advocates in the West, 67% of Palestinian respondents demanded PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas resign, according to a December 2020 poll conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research.
Let's hope that the Palestinian leadership takes responsibility for vaccinating all of its citizens in the coming several months. Let's also hope that well-meaning medical volunteers like Kennes do a better job getting the facts right on PA responsibility. That would be the best help to the deserving citizens of the Palestinian Authority.