NGOs drive Palestinian policy on COVID-19 vaccines

There were reasons why P.A. leaders wanted to be primarily responsible for vaccinating their people, but inspired by NGO antagonism, they reverted to their standard operating procedure of throwing Israel under the bus.

Palestinians attend Friday prayer at Al-Abrar mosque in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 29, 2020. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Palestinians attend Friday prayer at Al-Abrar mosque in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip on May 29, 2020. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90.
Naftali Balanson
Naftali Balanson

The Palestinian Authority had a clear plan for obtaining vaccines against COVID-19 for its population. While Israel made arrangements with pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna, the P.A. contracted with Russia for enough of the Sputnik V vaccine for 50 percent of West Bank and Gaza residents. It later requested financial support from the Gavi COVAX Advance Market Commitment, a global mechanism to deliver vaccines to poorer countries.

However, two developments at the end of 2020 and beginning of 2021 caused a marked shift in policy from Palestinian officials, who suddenly demanded that Israel provide them with vaccines.

First, Israel started getting positive attention around the world for its impressively efficient rollout of the vaccine. Israel bought large numbers of doses relative to population size, and in contrast to the sloth-like distribution in every other Western country, quickly vaccinated frontline health workers and the elderly, and is now on to the rest of the over-16 population. This has corresponded with delays in the Russian delivery of vaccines to the Palestinians.

Second, a network of advocacy NGOs began a campaign alleging that Israel has a legal and moral obligation to vaccinate Palestinians alongside Israelis. In their political war, any good press for Israel is considered a loss for Palestinians.

Media outlets, as well as the U.N., gave the campaign prominent platforms. A major boost came from The Guardian, not known for its great love of the Jewish State, which cited “Israeli, Palestinian and international rights groups” that “have accused Israel of dodging moral, humanitarian and legal obligations as an occupying power during the pandemic.”

There were good reasons why Palestinian leaders initially wanted to be primarily responsible for vaccinating the Palestinian people: agency and legitimacy. What kind of government is unable to make decisions and purchase prophylactics to protect its people from a pandemic? How can the P.A. call for elections, which it says it will do for the first time in 15 years, if it can’t provide the most basic functions of governance?

The P.A. was willing to throw its dignity out the window in order to throw Israel under the bus—an extension of what a decade ago its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, labeled the “internationalization of the conflict.”

The fundamental flaws and hypocrisy of the NGO allegations against Israel have been covered in detail.

Legally, the arrangement of medical care in the West Bank and Gaza is delineated in the Oslo agreements of the mid-1990s. They stipulate that “powers and responsibilities in the sphere of health in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side.”

Morally, every government has a primary and dominant responsibility to its own citizens. This is not to say that countries with more means should not assist the have-nots. And Israel may have a self-interest in vaccinating a Palestinian population that, at least through day-laborers, comes into close contact with and affects the herd immunity of Israelis.

However, this does not alter Israel’s obligation to start with Israeli citizens—especially when, no matter how impressive the plan has been to date—the infection rate continues to climb and millions yet to be vaccinated.

Financially, the NGOs outrageously claim that, if the P.A. faces “budgetary shortages,” Israel “must provide the necessary funds, as part of its legal obligations” and “must not deduct the vaccine costs from the tax revenues it collects on behalf of the PA.”

Setting aside the non-existence of any such “legal obligations,” this might be less of a joke if the P.A., the United Nations and the international NGO community were not spending millions on anti-Israel advocacy.

For instance, the 2018-2022 UNDAF agreement, signed between the P.A. and the 24 U.N. agencies operating in the West Bank and Gaza, calls for $18 million dedicated to “hold[ing] Israel accountable for its obligations under international law,” in part by authoring, with U.N. help, shadow reports against Israel to U.N. treaty bodies.

How many millions more have been spent by Palestinians and NGOs to lobby the International Criminal Court to pursue spurious and unjust investigations of Israel? NGO Monitor research has shown that European governments have contributed significant sums to NGOs, some with ties to terror groups, precisely for this purpose.

It is egregious that NGOs and the P.A., with U.N. complicity, are using scarce funds, which could be used for humanitarian aid in general and fighting COVID-19 in particular, to conduct anti-Israel advocacy and otherwise target Israel.

To be sure, NGOs have never let the legal, moral, factual and financial realities get in the way of their condemnations of Israel.

But when it comes to vaccination priorities, these NGOs are leading the P.A. down a path that will negatively impact the Palestinians themselves. Attacks will not force Israel to hand over, for free, invaluable vaccines. The only outcome will be further disempowerment for Palestinians.

Naftali Balanson is Chief of Staff at NGO Monitor (www.ngo-monitor.org), a Jerusalem-based research institute. 

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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