Palestine’s regional Arab allies, not Israel, should lead efforts to secure COVID-19 vaccines for the Palestinian population. The current crisis presents an opportunity for Arab countries to build goodwill internationally and support the Palestinian people by providing vaccines to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Palestinian Health Minister Dr. Mai al-Kaila told Al-Arabiya on February 24 that Palestinians had entered a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, reporting substantial rises in the number of infections as well as the entry of new coronavirus variants. Palestinians are suffering from a significant vaccine shortage and only recently began inoculation. This news comes on the heels of an intense international debate about Israel’s responsibility to provide vaccines to Palestinians. Israel is leading the world in the number of vaccine doses per capita, having vaccinated nearly 50 percent of its population—an incredible accomplishment for the small Jewish state. But critics and human rights advocates argue that Israel is neglecting its responsibilities under international law by not sufficiently providing vaccines to Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
International pressure increased most recently after reports revealed that Israel is sending vaccines to other nations, such as Honduras and the Czech Republic, for what critics argue is an exchange for diplomatic support. However, a key point missing from this conversation is the role of the Palestinians’ Arab neighbors. This crisis gives Arab allies, who claim to be devoted to the good of the Palestinian people and their cause, an opportunity to lead efforts to get the Palestinian population vaccinated. If Arab states did so, they would not only be acting on their sentiments of goodwill, but they could also empower Palestinian leadership and garner public support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) in time for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year. A strong PA is essential to the stability and security of the Palestinian Territories.
When four different Arab countries officially normalized relations with Israel last year, the majority of Palestinians and many other Arabs saw this as a betrayal and abandonment of the Palestinian cause. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan are all members of the Arab League, which had historically boycotted Israel. In 1967, the Arab League issued the famous Khartoum Resolution, which declared a commitment to “no peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, and no negotiations with it, and insistence on the rights of the Palestinian people in their own country.” Egyptian President Anwar Sadat challenged this status quo in 1979 when Egypt became the first Arab country to normalize relations with Israel. After Jordan followed suit in 1994, Arab states made no further progress for almost three decades until the Abraham Accords. Announced on August 13, 2020, they proclaimed that the UAE and Israel agreed to normalize relations. Shortly thereafter, Bahrain announced its normalization agreement with Israel. An outcry followed almost immediately. Critics argued that this jeopardized the Palestinian cause for sovereignty because (1) these countries were willing to normalize relations with Israel before a formal peace between the Palestinians and Israelis and (2) they did not require the protection of Palestinian interests in their agreements—no guarantee in any of the agreements stipulates that Israel will not annex Palestinian land. For most Palestinians, these Arab countries effectively steamrolled the moral cause of Palestinian national aspirations in exchange for a geostrategic partnership with their enemy.
But now, with Palestinians lacking COVID-19 vaccines, Arab allies can step in and prove their commitment to Palestinians. The UAE has been the only one to do so when Abu Dhabi transferred 20,000 doses of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine to Gaza. Longtime Mahmoud Abbas rival, Mohammad Dahlan, facilitated this delivery. In 2011, President Abbas exiled Dahlan, who currently resides in the UAE as a close confidant of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed Al Nahyan. Many regional experts believe that Dahlan is preparing for his return to the Palestinian Territories and a presidential run later this year. So his organizing the delivery of vaccines for Gaza is likely more strategic than altruistic.
But the delivery also seems symbolic. The PA arrested Dahlan associates across the West Bank following the announcement of the Abraham Accords (which many believe he played a big role in arranging). Street protestors burned and stepped on portraits of him and bin Zayed in response to the deal. But since then, Dahlan has seemingly tried to prove his commitment to Palestinians by organizing first the transfer of medical aid from the UAE in December 2020, and then most recently the delivery of vaccines. While Dahlan has varying interests, the move nevertheless illustrates how the UAE has not forgotten about the Palestinians after normalizing relations with Israel. Arab allies in the region who claim that their Palestinian brothers and sisters remain a priority should follow suit. Moreover, it is in their interest that the virus is contained and Palestinians receive access to appropriate medical supplies.
As the West Bank braces for the third wave, Palestinian leaders must continue to coordinate with international bodies to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their people, and distribute the vaccine first to those who need it most. Palestinians are expecting vaccines from COVAX in the coming weeks, and Israel pledged to send 5,000 doses to the West Bank—2,000 of which have already arrived. Now is the time for Arab allies of the Palestinian people to act—to work together to ensure that Palestinian leadership can provide for their people during this crisis. By working with Palestinian leaders, Arab allies can demonstrate their dedication to assuring a prosperous future for Palestinians.