On 16 March 2021, Palestinian, regional, and international civil society organizations held a joint webinar titled “Israeli Health Apartheid during COVID-19” in parallel to the 46th session of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council. Organized and moderated by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. The webinar was attended by diplomats, representatives from UN agencies, and civil society organizations. Co-sponsored by 15 organizations, the webinar constitutes a continuation of civil society’s efforts to address Israel’s apartheid regime.
Opening the webinar, Ms. Nada Awad, International Advocacy Officer at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, underpinned how the impacts of the global pandemic have brought into sharp focus Israel’s denial of the right to health of the Palestinian people as part of its commission of the crime of apartheid. Ms. Awad further stressed that this focus comes amid increasing international recognition of the apartheid system established and proactively maintained by Israel.
In her intervention, UN Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, said: “More than 4.5 million Palestinians will remain unprotected and exposed to COVID-19, while in this case Israeli citizens living near and among them – including the Israeli settler population – will be vaccinated. Morally and legally, when you are using the bedrock of human rights as your compass, we know this differential access to necessary health care in the midst of the worst global health crisis in a century is unacceptable.”
Seven decades of Israel’s institutionalized racial domination and oppression have resulted in wide disparities between Israeli and Palestinian access to healthcare and Palestinians’ broader enjoyment of the right to health. During the event, Palestinian civil society addressed the impacts of the global pandemic; focusing on the impact of Israel’s regime of institutionalized racial domination and oppression over the Palestinian people on the right to health, including the denial of equal access to life-saving COVID-19 vaccines, the deliberate underdevelopment of the health sector in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s medical neglect of Palestinian detainees and prisoners, and the disproportionate impacts of Israeli policies, including demolitions and evictions, on Palestinian women and girls.
Specifically, Ms. Budour Hassan, Legal Researcher at the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre, highlighted how Israel has failed to limit or restrict its violations of Palestinian rights and rather has exploited the pandemic to escalate its violations against Palestinians; especially the right to adequate housing. Underscoring that “the effect of the pandemic has not been limited to health, but it has been most acutely felt in the health department,” Ms. Hassan further stressed that “any solution to these problems need to tackle the pandemic holistically, not just focus on health but to focus on all aspects and to treat this regime as a holistic regime of apartheid that is meant to fragment and de-develop the entirely of the Palestinian community.”
Addressing the current situation in the Gaza Strip, Ms. Nuriya Oswald, International Legal and Advocacy Director at Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, underpinned how “Gaza’s efforts to manage the pandemic were hamstrung from the start,” due to the 13-year-long closure imposed on over two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, in what constitutes collective punishment under international law, and regular military bombardments, which have led to the vast destruction of civilian infrastructure including medical facilities and water and sanitation systems, bringing the healthcare system in Gaza on the brink of collapse and greatly undermining the public hygiene sector and services. Ms. Oswald further highlighted the gaping vaccine disparities between Israelis and Palestinians, noting that the conversation, in Israel, “is about life restarting [and] about life after the pandemic,” whereas, “in Palestine, the vaccination program has barely gotten off the ground,” as Israel continues to fail to adhere to its legal obligations, as Occupying Power, to meet the health needs of the protected Palestinian population.
Placing Israel’s discriminatory, unlawful, and racist rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in the wider context, Ms. Shahd Qaddoura, Legal Researcher and Advocacy Officer at Al-Haq, underpinned the root causes of the issue, noting that decades of Israel’s settler colonialism and the apartheid regime of systematic racial domination and oppression over all Palestinians has led to the fragmentation and de-development of the healthcare system of the occupied Palestinian territory. Ms. Qaddoura further stressed that “Israel will continue to ignore its legal obligations, as Occupying Power, and maintain its apartheid regime over the Palestinian people as a whole, on both sides of the Green Line and as refugees abroad, as long as it is not held accountable,” urging the international community to recognize the root causes of the prolonged denial of Palestinian rights and take effective steps to prevent further continuation of international crimes against the Palestinian people, including by fully cooperating with the International Criminal Court.
Exposing the gravity of the Israeli Prison Services policy of deliberate medical negligence, Ms. Milena Ansari, International Advocacy Officer at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, stressed that such policy has become “an integral part of the Israeli occupying authorities’ oppression of Palestinian prisoners and detainees and another method to infringe on Palestinian prisoners’ right to health and dignified treatment.” Ms. Ansari further underscored various difficulties Palestinian prisoners and detainees endure amidst a global pandemic, including overcrowding and the lack of proper ventilation, as well as Israel’s halting of bringing Palestinian detainees to court, and rather conducting court hearings remotely. Justified as a measure to contain the spread of COVID-19, Ms. Ansari explained how this policy further impedes the ability of Palestinian detainees to adequately follow the procedures, violating their right to a fair trial.
Reflecting on the aftermath of Israeli policies and practices on Palestinian women and girls amidst a global pandemic, Ms. Amal Abusrour, Director of Programs at the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counselling, pointed out how the Israeli occupying force’s failure to take the needed preventative measures during night raids, which continued amid a global pandemic, have created an extra burden for Palestinian women, who now worry, even more, about the health and safety of their detained family members. Addressing settler violence attacks, Ms. Abusrour highlighted how such attacks have traumatization and negative impacts on the mental health of Palestinian women and children, as well as effects on different rights, including the right to water, recalling a testimony from a Palestinian woman who had an unknown substance added to their water tank by an Israeli settler; forcing the Palestinian family to halt their utilization of water for about 48 hours.
Overall, the civil society organizations called on the UN Member States to recognize Israel’s establishment of an apartheid regime over the Palestinian people as a whole and urged them to take effective measures toward bringing the illegal situation to an end. In the context of the ongoing pandemic, organizations called on the international community to ensure that Israel upholds its responsibility as the Occupying Power to respect, protect, and fulfill the right of health for all Palestinians under Israel’s effective control, including by providing Palestinians with equal access to vaccines.
In her closing remarks Special Rapporteur Dr. Mofokeng added, “As someone who lived and grew up in apartheid South Africa, I don’t have to imagine or read textbook research to understand what’s happening and the urgency of the issues” in Palestine.