Palestine Center Brief No. 338 (April 21, 2020)
By Mohamed Mohamed
Throughout the world, countries are scrambling to treat people infected by the COVID-19 virus and to prevent it from spreading. But even a devastating global pandemic has not stopped Israel from doing what it does best: discriminate against Palestinians.
One only needs to look at Israel’s treatment of Palestinian workers to see the extent of its cruelty. It is failing to take responsibility for the health of tens of thousands of Palestinians from the occupied West Bank who work inside Israel.
According to Haaretz, Israel’s government refuses to perform COVID-19 tests for Palestinian workers entering from the West Bank, and it also refuses to test workers once they return.
In fact, more than half of Palestinian COVID-19 patients in the West Bank are laborers who contracted the virus in Israel, or they were infected by people who work there.
In the Glatt Off chicken slaughterhouse in the Atarot industrial sector near Jerusalem, Palestinian workers have indicated that 15-20 individuals sleep in one room, which goes against Israeli government instructions and basic “social distancing” guidelines. As a result, some of these workers became infected with the COVID-19 virus.
Israeli employers have threatened to lay off Palestinian workers or cancel their work permits if they decide to return to their homes in the West Bank. On top of this, Palestinian workers only receive health insurance for occupational accidents, but they do not have coverage for illness due to COVID-19.
Israeli businesses are skirting their responsibilities to protect Palestinian employees, but this would be impossible if the Israeli state had not set the same example. In Israeli politics, economics, and society at large, Palestinians have been treated as expendable cannon fodder for a very long time.
Under international law, Israel is obligated to prevent and combat the spread of contagious diseases within the Palestinian territories that it occupies. Specifically, Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 states that:
“To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining, with the cooperation of national and local authorities, the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
Israeli politicians have not hesitated to brag about Israel’s position as one of the richest and most technologically advanced countries in the world. So, Israel definitely has the “means available” to ensure the public health and safety of the occupied Palestinian population.
But Israel is notorious for failing to fulfill its obligations under international law. It has ignored and continues to ignore numerous United Nations resolutions for over seven decades, without any form of punishment or sanctions. It simply has no incentive to change its behavior, and its neglect of the occupied Palestinian population is not surprising.
At the very least, one would think that Israel would want to ensure the public health of Palestinians in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among Israelis.
But it seems that Israel’s hatred and animosity toward Palestinians is greater than its desire for the well-being of its citizens, even in the face of a highly contagious and deadly pandemic. After all, a widespread contagion of COVID-19 in the occupied territories would give Israel an excuse to impose even further controls on Palestinians.
Palestinians from the West Bank to Gaza have already been living a life of quarantine, limited freedom of movement, and other severe restrictions on their liberties, for many years. They have survived for decades under siege, occupation, and oppression, and they will overcome the challenge of this pandemic. The question is, when will Israel finally fulfill its responsibilities under international law, or at the very least, its moral obligations of human decency?
Mohamed Mohamed is the Executive Director of the Palestine Center.
The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.