A furious row involving Jewish leaders, human rights groups and national newspapers erupted this week over accusations that Israel was “excluding” Palestinians from its Covid-19 vaccine rollout.
Sharp words between the Board of Deputies and the Observer newspaper over an article quickly grew into an international furore involving Amnesty International, which accused Israel of “institutional discrimination”.
Israel’s supercharged vaccination programme has been widely reported, but the Observer said Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza could “only watch and wait” as Jewish settlers got the jab.
On Wednesday Amnesty International weighed in, its Middle East and North Africa deputy director Saleh Higazi saying the vaccine programme “highlights the institutionalised discrimination” towards Palestinians.
“While Israel celebrates a record-setting vaccination drive, millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza will receive no vaccine or have to wait much longer,” said Higazi. “There could hardly be a better illustration of how Israeli lives are valued above Palestinian ones.”
Visiting the village of Umm Al-Fahm on Friday, Netanyahu said: “We brought millions of vaccines here, more than any other country in the world relative to its population, and we brought them to everyone: Jews and Arabs, religious and secular.”
However, Amnesty said Palestinian authorities “cannot independently fund vaccines and their distribution, they depend on global cooperation mechanisms”, such as the World Health Organisation, which has still has not begun distributing vaccines.
“Israel must provide full financial support to ensure that the vaccine is promptly distributed to the Palestinian population without discrimination.”
This comes after The Observer’s article, posted on Monday, focused on Israeli human rights groups’ accusations that the government of Benjamin Netanyahu was “dodging its vaccine obligations to millions” of Palestinians, who may have to wait months.
Board of Deputies’ senior vice president Sheila Gewolb said she was “extremely troubled” by the headline and photo, saying it gave ammunition to antisemites despite being “blatantly false”.
Jewish News understands that the Observer’s headline originally focused on the wait but was changed at the last minute to: ‘Palestinians excluded from Israeli Covid vaccine rollout as jabs go to settlers.’
Gewolb said the allegation that Israel “excluded” Palestinians was untrue. “The Palestinian Authority (PA) is responsible for vaccinations provided to Palestinians in both the West Bank and Gaza.
“The PA has not even asked Israel for help in this regard, looking to source the vaccines elsewhere. Israel is therefore vaccinating its own citizens, as every country in the world is trying to do. This includes millions of Arab citizens of Israel.”
The article said Israel “transports batches of the vaccine deep inside the West Bank but they are only distributed to Jewish settlers, not the roughly 2.7 million Palestinians living around them”.
Gewolb said the headline and accompanying picture, of an Orthodox Jew being vaccinated in Israel, “provides grist to the mill of far-right and far-left antisemites alike, who seek to take anything positive Israel does and twist it beyond recognition”.
She said the paper “should change this headline immediately and issue an apology”.
An Observer spokesperson said: “The Observer and the Guardian’s independent readers’ editor has not received a direct complaint from the Board of Deputies about the article. The readers’ editor will review the article and come to a conclusion about any comments, concerns, and complaints received.”
The Israeli Embassy in London said: “It is unfortunate to see that even on a topic such as the phenomenal success of the vaccination roll out in Israel which has saved human lives, there are still those who seek to paint the State of Israel in a negative light.
“The Palestinian Authority is responsible for its own health care system, as signed in the Oslo Accords, and it has not asked for any additional assistance in their current effort to secure vaccine.
“It is clear the State of Israel has a great interest to see the Palestinians vaccinated as soon as possible, as this is a humanitarian issue that affects the entire region. This virus has no borders.
“The State of Israel will continue to save lives by administering the vaccination in record time, and inspiring other countries across the world.”
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