Month: January 2021

COVID – some facts and explanations

Tuesday January 26th 2021

The number of covid-19 cases in the West Bank and Gaza so far is 175,416 and the number of deaths is about 1,967. [Updated figures can be found here: ochaopt.org/covid-19]

The Palestinian citizens of Israel and the 350,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem are entitled to vaccines from Israel. Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are going to be vaccinated.

Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza have had almost no access to vaccines yet. The Palestine Authority has ordered Russian Sputnik vaccines but only 5,000 doses have arrived so far. The World Health Organisation COVAX scheme is expected to cover only 20% of the population and to take months to arrive.

In the towns and villages of the West Bank (Areas A and B under the Oslo Accords) the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Health has been providing health care since 1994. Hamas is running the Ministry of Health in Gaza, although they receive funds from the PA.

The position in international law is that the occupying power is responsible for the welfare of Palestinians, including basic health care. Vaccinations should be part of that medical care and it makes sense for Israel and Palestine treated as a single epidemiological unit.

Counter-claim

Israel counter-argues that the Oslo Accords gave responsibility to the Palestinian Authority. However, the Accords were written with a view to them lasting for 5 years. The World Bank has calculated the cost to the Palestinian economy of Israel’s occupation as $3.4 billion, so leaves the Palestinian Authority in a poor position to meet the health and other needs of the population.

Professor Ardi Imseis, an expert on the law of belligerent occupation, was asked a question about this recently. “Does the fact that there is a Palestinian government absolve Israel of its responsibilities as an occupier?” He answered: “No, it doesn’t absolve Israel from its duties. Article 59 of the Fourth Geneva Convention requires occupiers to facilitate relief schemes for the protected population. This includes supply of medicines. Article 60 makes it clear that the occupier has an obligation to ensure that the population as a whole receives vaccination in a timely way. But leaving aside the law it seems monumentally stupid not to do so given the close proximity.”

The Independent reported that the Israeli Ministry of Health had refused to supply vaccines to Palestinian health workers.

Foreign Office questions briefing

To complete the picture, here is some information sent from Palestine Briefing for Foreign Office questions on Tuesday January 19th on the inequitable distribution of covid-19 vaccines in the Global South in general.

Palestine is a particularly flagrant example. Israel has achieved the widest coronavirus vaccine coverage in proportion to its population but whilst we congratulate them on this achievement, we should urge them to extend the vaccine to the whole of the population under their control regardless of ethnic or religious heritage.

What the UK can do

Layla Moran MP has led the charge in calling for the UK Government to take action to help Palestinians receive the vaccine. She has written to the Minister, with many other MPs, setting out the necessary steps.

Here are six things the UK Government could do about it:

  1. Do all in its power to help the Palestine Authority to procure enough doses of the vaccine to protect healthcare workers and the most vulnerable. The UK has 350 million doses on order for a population of 67 million. The PA has so far been promised vaccines for only 20% of its population and that is “some months” away.
  2. Urge the Israeli government to accede to the World Health Organisation’s request to provide extra medical staff in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza. So far it has refused.
  3. Urge Israel to stop demolishing buildings in the occupied territories, including health-related buildings. During the pandemic the Israeli army has demolished a quarantine centre for people suspected of contracting coronavirus in Hebron, a Palestinian security checkpoint set up at the entrance of the city of Jenin to test for coronavirus and a first aid centre being built for Bedouin children in the Jordan Valley village of Ibzeek.
  4. Urge Israel to tell the government’s ambulance service Magen David Adom to issue covid-19-related public health information not just in Hebrew but also in Arabic for the 20% of the Israeli population who are Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  5. Remind the Israeli government of its obligation under the international law on military occupations (Articles 59 and 60 of the 4th Geneva Convention) to facilitate relief schemes for the occupied population including supply of medicines and to ensure they receive vaccination in a timely way (see footnote).
  6. Remind the Israeli government that it is in its own interest to ensure that Palestinians living or working in Israel or in illegal Israeli settlements are protected from Covid-19. The coronavirus does not respect borders, nor does it discriminate on religious or ethnic lines.

Briefing on Palestinian elections

Tuesday 26th January 2021

Following an agreement between Fatah and Hamas the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has announced that elections will take place on May 22 for the Palestinian parliament (the Palestine Legislative Council) and on July 31 for the Presidency.

There will also be an election in August for the Palestine Liberation Organisation which also represents all the Palestinian refugees living abroad.

This is the third time that an agreement has been reached between the two parties to hold elections, but on all the previous occasions one or other side has pulled out of the agreement before the elections could be held.

One would not need to be very cynical to conclude that obstacles were put in the way of an election by the party that thought it was likely to lose if the election was held at that time. 

This time it is the election of President Biden that has put pressure on both sides to get their act together. It is clear that the US government would be less likely help a Palestinian government that has long outlived its democratic mandate.

The last national elections in Palestine were in 2006.  Hamas, fighting an election for the first time, were the surprise winners. Many commentators said it was a vote against the Fatah old guard, accused of being out of touch and sometimes corrupt, rather than a positive vote for the policies of Hamas. Fatah were not helped by putting up rival Fatah lists in some areas. Since 2006 there have only been municipal elections where support has seesawed regularly between Fatah and Hamas.

But organising national elections poses enormous political and logistical problems.  People have to vote in the West Bank under Palestinian Authority control, in East Jerusalem under Israeli control and in Gaza under Hamas rule. Will the Israelis let people vote in Jerusalem? Will international election observers be allowed into Gaza?  Will there be a single list from each party?

The most recent poll in December predicted that Fatah would lead in the parliamentary elections by 38 to 34%, but also that Hamas would win the presidency by 50 to 43% if the Fatah candidate was the 85-year-old president Mahmoud Abbas.

Jailed Barghouthi to stand

The current prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh would fare better as the Fatah candidate tying with Hamas’s Ismail Haniyeh at 47% each. However, if the jailed Fatah politician Marwan Barghouthi stands in the election – as he intends to – then he would beat Haniyeh and Abbas either separately or together. 

In every case Fatah would win more support in the West Bank and Hamas would win more in Gaza, but Barghouthi is the only candidate who wins strong support in both.

The parliamentary election will be held under a new electoral system with a single national list for the whole country, as in Israel. In the 2006 election Hamas won one seat more than Fatah in the national list but that turned into a 29-seat majority as a result of the district lists where Fatah shot itself in the foot by allowing rival Fatah lists to stand in some areas.

This time both parties have welcomed the election and supported the new electoral system. There has been widespread speculation that they might even agree on a joint Fatah-Hamas list, which will make it far more certain that the election will go ahead, but will give the voters less effective choice. None of the other parties won more than three seats in the 2006 election.

Fatah is a secular party which sees itself both as a national liberation movement and a party of the left with links to social-democratic parties in Europe. Hamas is an Islamic party with links to the Muslim Brotherhood and a more recent history of armed resistance, though in the last few years it has been sporadically restraining other armed groups to enforce a Gaza ceasefire.  

If the two parties submit a joint list, the most important unknown factor will be the attitude of the West to the outcome of the election. Will the West accept the result if Hamas wins or if a joint Fatah-Hamas government is formed?  It was the refusal of the UK and other Western countries to accept the result of the 2006 election that led to the split and the Hamas take-over of Gaza and the 14-year blockade and the deep suspicion that still exists between the two parties.  Have we learnt the lesson? Or will we do the same thing again?

Public Opinion Poll No (78) 27 December 2020 Palestinian Centre for Policy and Social Research http://www.pcpsr.org/en