Israel’s Violations of the 4th Geneva Convention

An extraordinary event took place on 24 January 2021: a BBC TV interviewer repeatedly challenged an Israeli representative about Israel’s failure to carry out its obligations under international law towards Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. 

The occasion was an interview by Andrew Marr with the Israeli Minister of Health, Yuli Edelstein [1].  Marr challenged him repeatedly about Israel’s failure to carry out its obligations under Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention to provide Palestinians under occupation with COVID-19 vaccines.

Article 56 states:

“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.”

Marr began by asking:

“The United Nations says it’s your legal obligation to make sure the Palestinian people under occupation have swift and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.  Why aren’t you doing this?”

Edelstein replied that Israel’s first obligation was to its citizens and that, while it was in Israel’s interest that Palestinians be vaccinated, Israel was under no “legal obligation” to make sure that this was done.

Marr interrupted him saying:

“I understand that.  But the Palestinians have asked you for vaccines but you haven’t given them some and, under the Geneva Convention, the Fourth Geneva Convention, Israel is required to do so.  I can read it back.  Article 56 says that Israel must adopt and apply the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics in cooperation with local authorities.  Now that means the vaccines.  Why aren’t you giving them the vaccines?”

Edelstein replied:

“I would say that first of all we also should look into the so-called Oslo Agreement where it says loud and clear that Palestinians have to take care of their own health.”

Marr interrupted him again, saying:

“Sorry to interrupt but the United Nations says that international law should supersede the Oslo Agreements on this.”

to which Edelstein responded facetiously:

“If it is the responsibility of the Israeli Health Ministry to take care of the Palestinians, what exactly is the responsibility of the Palestinian Health Ministry?  To take care of the dolphins in the Mediterranean?”

Israeli vaccination

At the time of writing (24 February), over 3 million “Israelis”, that is, about a third of the total, have received both shots of the Pfizer vaccine.  A further 1.4 million have received one shot and are awaiting the second.  Overall, almost half of “Israelis” have received at least the first shot.  

Here, the term “Israelis” means people living in Israel and occupied East Jerusalem (of which around 1.5 million are Palestinians) plus the Israeli settlers living in Jewish-only colonies on Palestinian land in the West Bank.

In a process that smacks of apartheid, the settlers are being vaccinated while Palestinians in nearby towns and villages are not – and neither are Palestinians in Gaza.  In all, around 5 million Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza have been excluded from Israel’s vaccination rollout.

An American comedian called Michael Che has attracted the wrath of the Israeli lobby in the US for remarking on Saturday Night Live that “Israel is reporting that they’ve vaccinated half of their population, and I’m going to guess it’s the Jewish half”.  He wasn’t far wrong, though he may come to regret saying it.

Few vaccines for Palestinians

The Palestinian Authority has applied to the global COVAX facility for acquiring vaccines, though any such support will only cover up to 20% of its population and may take weeks or months to arrive. 

Meanwhile, it has been donated 10,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine by Russia, enough to vaccinate 5,000 people.    The transfer of 2,000 of these to Gaza was held up by Israel for 2 days.  Recently, 20,000 Sputnik V doses from the UAE arrived in Gaza through the Rafah crossing from Egypt without passing through Israel.

Apparently, the US has urged Israel to provide Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza with vaccines.  According to the Times of Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken did so in a phone call with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on 22 February [2].  So far, that hasn’t produced a big result for Palestinians.

However, the next day Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that “the stocks of vaccines in the country allow it to transfer a symbolic number of immunizations to Palestinian medical staff and to other countries that have asked Israel for help”.  The other countries include Guatemala, Honduras, the Czech Republic and Hungary.  

(These states qualified for Israeli largesse because they have all taken steps to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – Guatemala moved its embassy to Jerusalem in 2018; Honduras has announced its intention to move its embassy to Jerusalem; the Czech Republic has said it plans to open a “diplomatic office” in Jerusalem; and Hungary opened a “trade office” in the city in 2019.)

Home demolitions in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention

Andrew Marr challenged Minister Edelstein about Israel’s failure to carry out its obligations under Article 56 the Fourth Geneva Convention towards Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.  But he could have done much better.

What about Israel’s obligations under Article 53, which states:

Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.

Contrary to the clear obligation in this article, the demolition of Palestinian homes without any semblance of military justification is a regular feature of life for Palestinians in the West Bank including East Jerusalem.  According to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem:

West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) [3]

  • In 2020, the Israeli state demolished 151 homes, making 610 Palestinians (including 311 minors) homeless;
  • From 2006-2020, the Israeli state demolished 1673 homes, making 7,260 Palestinians (including 3,646 minors) homeless

East Jerusalem [4]

  • In 2020, the Israeli state demolished 121 homes, making 379 Palestinians (including 194 minors) homeless;
  • From 2004-2020, the Israeli state demolished 1097 homes, making 3,579 Palestinians (including 1899 minors) homeless

The numbers involved are staggering: in the last 20 years have deliberately made well over 10,000 Palestinians homeless without any military justification.

Collective punishment in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention

And Article 33, which says:

“No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited.”

Demolishing the homes of relatives of Palestinians who harmed or attempted to harm Israeli civilians or security personnel is common practice in the occupied territories, despite being a clear breach of Article 33.  Over the years Israel has demolished hundreds of homes, leaving homeless thousands of people who had done no wrong and were not suspected of doing wrong.

Since 2014, for example, Israel has demolished 92 homes as collective punishment, leaving 345 Palestinians (including 143 minors) homeless.

Population transfers in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention

And most important of all, Article 49(6), which says:

“The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.”

Despite the clear obligation on Israel as the occupying power not to transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, there are now well over 600,000 settlers in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem

UK response 

The British Government has been largely silent on Israel’s failure to provide vaccines for Palestinians under occupation, although back in December in reply to a question Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly accepted that

“Under International Humanitarian Law, Israel, as the occupying power, has the duty of ensuring and maintaining public health and hygiene in the OPTs to the fullest extent of the means available and with the cooperation of the local authorities.”

To the best of my knowledge, there has been no official response from the Labour Party leader, Sir Keir Starmer, or from its foreign affairs spokesperson, Lisa Nandy.  This is shameful.  In a major foreign policy speech to the Fabian Society in January, Sir Keir emphasised his commitment to international law: 

“I believe Britain can – and must – be a moral force for good in the world – a country that keeps our word and defends international law. ….

“I care passionately about this. I was a human rights lawyer for 20 years and I worked in many countries around the world so defending human rights and international law will always be incredibly important to me.” [5]

But he hasn’t said a peep about this latest violation of international law by Israel, which will most likely lead to the deaths of many Palestinians from Covid-19 because Israel’s failure to provide vaccines.  Nor has he said a peep, since he became leader, about the ongoing violations of international law described above which began in 1967 when Israel took over the West Bank and Gaza by force.  

David Morrison

24 February 2021







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