“Time is our worst enemy,” most Palestinians from the West Bank will tell you. And in Gaza, you would be forgiven for thinking that time, for many years, has stood still altogether. Waiting is a fact of life Palestinians know only too well, and the inhumanity of now being forced to wait for COVID-19 vaccines comes as no surprise to those familiar with the daily struggle of existing under Israel’s apartheid and settler-colonialism.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted in January that Israel “will be the first country in the world to emerge from the coronavirus” and that his deal with Pfizer “will enable us to vaccinate all citizens of Israel over the age of 16 by the end of March and perhaps even earlier, meaning that we will vaccinate the entire relevant population and everyone who wants to will be able to be vaccinated.” The speed at which Israel rolled out its vaccinations proves Netanyahu was serious in his assertions, and also reveals exactly who is considered Israel’s “relevant population.” That Israel has executed the world’s fastest vaccination program—administering more than 10.2 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to its 9.3 million citizens at the time of writing (with more than 54.4 percent receiving two doses since December)—while the 5 million Palestinians occupied by that same regime are still forced to wait, tells you all you need to know about Israel’s disregard for international law and the value it places on Palestinian lives more generally.
While most of the international community may not yet officially recognize Israel’s systematic regime of fragmentation, domination, and subordination of Palestinians to Israeli Jews as a sophisticated system of apartheid—Human Rights Watch’s recent acknowledgment of this reality is welcome, albeit long overdue—there is a general consensus that Israel is the military occupier of Palestinian territory. According to the United Nations and even the U.S. State Department, Israel occupies the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. And with military occupation come legal responsibilities. Numerous articles in the Geneva Conventions explicitly state it is the responsibility of the occupying power to provide medical supplies to the occupied population. Article 56 of the Geneva Conventions specifically mentions medical supplies relating to a pandemic:
The Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring and maintaining… public health and hygiene in the occupied territory, with particular reference to the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventative measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious disease and epidemics.
Around 3 million Palestinians live under military rule in the West Bank, and around 2 million live in the open-air prison of the Gaza Strip, and so far Israel is vaccinating as few of them as possible. While Israel is busy re-opening its economy, providing vaccine certificates to facilitate opening bars, restaurants, and cultural venues and even ordering more vaccines to enhance its surplus (Israel possesses enough now to fully vaccinate its population three times over), Palestinians are still being forced to wait for the potentially life-saving inoculation.
Israel did begin vaccinating some Palestinians in March—but only around 120,000 laborers with Israeli work permits. And Israel has delivered some vaccines to the Palestinian Authority: on February 1 it delivered 2,000 of the 5,000 Moderna doses it promised—an insult of a promise at best, and one which it is still yet to fulfil. With no choice but to source them elsewhere, Palestinians have been forced to wait for vaccines to arrive from further afield, including from China, Russia and the World Health Organization-led COVAX program. Backed by the U.N., the COVAX program aims to distribute 2 million doses into the arms of around 1/4 the population of poorer countries by the end of the year, but has seen a slow initial roll-out. So far some 160,140 vaccines have made it to the West Bank, with over half arriving from China, and 98,300 vaccines have reached Gaza, almost two-thirds of which are Russian-made Sputnik V vaccines mostly supplied by the United Arab Emirates. Including the vaccines Israel has already administered to Palestinian laborers, Palestinians are not yet equipped to fully inoculate even 5 percent of their 5 million-strong population.
As the wait for vaccines continues, the urgent demand for them only increases. March saw a 48 percent increase in active COVID-19 cases in the occupied Palestinian territory (while the term “occupied territories” is often used to describe Gaza, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, many Palestinian activists prefer the singular “territory” to counter Israeli rhetoric that portrays Palestine as small and fragmented). Active cases in Gaza are surging by 356 percent, and the situation is proving to be deadly throughout the occupied territory. At least 2,456 people have died from COVID in the West Bank, while 694 have died in Gaza. According to Gaza’s Ministry of Health, the besieged enclave recently had its deadliest 24 hours, with 17 new COVID deaths.
Damningly, but entirely predictably, the Case Fatality Rate (the proportion of deaths among confirmed cases) remains significantly higher for Palestinians in the occupied territory than in Israel itself, with 1.1 percent CFR in Gaza and the West Bank, compared with 0.75 percent in Israel. Clearly the already extreme health inequalities Palestinians suffer under Israel’s occupation, especially in the Gaza Strip—one of the world’s most densely populated areas—have been compounding the lethal effects of the virus. Palestinian hospitals are overrun and struggling to provide enough ventilators, with the number of active cases rising back to some of their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.
COVID-19 is not the root cause of Palestinian suffering, but the strain from the virus is illuminating the artificial production (and exacerbation) of health inequalities caused by Israel’s crippling occupation. Horrific as it might be, it comes as little surprise that Israel is ignoring its legal responsibilities as an occupying power to immediately offer vaccines to Palestinians, even as it attempts to send “excess” vaccines to friendly countries.
Forcing Palestinians to wait for COVID vaccines is only the latest manifestation of Israel’s weaponization of time against its subject population. Israel wields waiting as a weapon to facilitate its settler-colonial end, which is ultimately to capture as much land with as few Palestinians as possible. In the West Bank, Palestinians are forced to wait in all aspects of their lives under Israel’s system of hyper-regulated control. Over 5,000 military laws and edicts dominate the lives of Palestinians there, limiting everything from freedom of movement to freedom to dig for water. While in Israel citizens may drive freely, under occupation in the West Bank Palestinians wait indefinitely at checkpoints or attempt to meander through lengthy detours on dilapidated backroads. During the Second Intifada 60 women were forced to give birth at checkpoints; 36 babies and five women died as a result. Farah Nabulsi’s 2021 BAFTA-winning short film The Present dramatizes these temporal injustices, showing how checkpoints incapacitate bodies while igniting intergenerational trauma.
And where Israelis may work freely, Palestinians in the West Bank must wait for work permits. Or, they must risk everything entering Israel to find work, only to be forced instead to serve lengthy prison sentences. Where Israelis travel freely around the world, Palestinians must wait for international travel permits, which are often denied. While Israel rapidly constructs expansive illegal settlements, Palestinians wait years for building permits. If they can’t wait, they must take their chances and build “illegally” on their own land, only to then wait in fear of their homes being demolished. Between 2016 to 2018, 98 percent of building permits requested in Israeli-controlled Area C were denied. You get the picture.
But it’s not just in the West Bank where Palestinians are forced to wait. Palestinian refugee families expelled in the Nakba of 1948 continue to wait decades in exile to return to their homes. Some families languish in refugee camps just a few kilometers from their original villages, while Israel exclusively welcomes Jews from around the world as citizens through its “Law of Return.” Once again, Israel’s disregard for international law is exposed when it comes to respecting the fundamental rights of Palestinians. The right of return for refugees is a universal right, enshrined in international law through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions, and affirmed specifically toward Palestinians in U.N. Resolution 194.
Over the decades, Israeli leaders have strategized on how to engineer an environment so unbearable that Palestinians decide to leave altogether. Make the Palestinians wait long enough for basic necessities, and the problem will resolve itself. In a 1967 cabinet meeting following the Six Day War, then-Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol optimistically declared “precisely because of the suffocation and imprisonment there, maybe the Arabs will move from the Gaza Strip” before positing “perhaps if we don’t give them enough water they won’t have a choice, because the orchards will yellow and wither.” More recently in 2008, senior advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Dov Weisglass, explained Israeli policy in Gaza was “to put the Palestinians on a diet,” though he quickly added “but not to make them die of hunger.” This was backed up by findings from Israeli documents from 2008 which calculated the minimal caloric intake necessary for Palestinians to avoid outright malnutrition in spite of the blockade. The U.N. declared Gaza would be unlivable by 2020, and today in 2021 the 141 square mile strip of land is, by any humane standards, an unlivable place.
Right now in Gaza, 2 million Palestinians are either waiting for the next morning to be granted their daily ration of electricity or waiting for it to be cut off—while in Israel citizens are using the latest digital technology on high-speed internet connectivity, 24/7. Unable to leave, Palestinians wait in precarity: 96 percent of the water is undrinkable and unemployment there is among the world’s highest, hovering at around 50 percent, with 70 percent of 20 to 29 year-olds being jobless. The overwhelmingly young population is trapped in extended transitions, unable to leave home and live independently as adults. Andrew McConnell and Gary Keane’s award-winning feature length documentary GAZA (2019) illuminates this vividly for the world to see, with a spectrum of characters describing their existences as frozen, not only in space, but in time as well. A paramedic treating wounded protestors in the Great March of Return describes how “for more than 10 years these young men have had no future, no hope… today, tomorrow, and yesterday are all the same.” A man named Ali observes how he’s seen men “for 15 to 20 years playing backgammon.” Another Palestinian likens his own life to “a car with flat tires,” because “you can’t move forwards or backwards.” In Gaza, waiting may become life and life may become waiting.
Gaza’s health crisis caused by the blockade, coupled with Israel’s arbitrary and violently slow permit bureaucracy, is a lethal combination. Even patients with complex medical needs are often made to wait to reach Palestinian facilities in East Jerusalem for urgent treatment. And each year, Palestinians die as a result. In 2017, five-year-old child Aya Khalil Abu Metlaq, who was born with a metabolic disorder, could not get adequate treatment in Gaza, so she was referred to Al Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem. Aya’s parents said they applied to the Israeli authorities for an exit permit to travel to an appointment there on February 5, but received no response. After rescheduling for March 19 and applying again, the family still received no response from the authorities at the Erez crossing and so were not able to make the appointment. Aya died on April 17 while her family were waiting for a permit to exit for an appointment rescheduled for 10 days later.
Aya’s case was heartbreaking, but it was not rare. In 2018, Fayza Shamia, 50, waited almost two years for permission to cross Erez and get medical treatment for breast cancer at the same hospital. According to her medical records, Shamia had been scheduled to receive treatment in Jerusalem in August 2016. Instead, she died in April 2018 still waiting for treatment, only a few hours after receiving an exit permit from the Israeli authorities. The scale of Israel’s inhumanity toward Palestinians is staggering. In 2017, 54 Gaza patients died after their exit permits were delayed or denied. In 2020, Physicians for Human Rights in Israel complained Israel approved only half of medical permits for Gaza patients.
Time is an artifact of power, and the question of who has control over the time of others is an inherently political one. Colonial powers have long sought to manipulate the temporalities of those they dominate, as seen with the imposition of the Gregorian calendar by European powers over indigenous populations in the Sahara, or the imposition of standardized railway time across India in the late 19th century by the British. Both manipulations of time in turn facilitated the conversion of indigenous populations into exploitable labor forces.
But things are different in the occupied territory. Driven by the Zionist project’s vision to establish and maintain a Jewish state in historic Palestine, Israel’s ongoing settler-colonialism reduces Palestinian existence to merely a demographic threat rather than a limitless pool of exploitable labor. While illegal Israeli settlement construction increasingly depends on highly exploited Palestinian labor from the West Bank, Palestinians en masse are forcibly excluded rather than incorporated under Israel’s apartheid system of control—excluded both spatially and temporally. It is not a coincidence that 1 million children continue to wait for freedom trapped inside Israel’s 15-year-long siege on Gaza, and that 7 million Palestinian refugees wait to be afforded their right to return home. Rather, it is part of a wider regime of demographic manipulation by exclusion to maintain Israel’s Jewish majority. Israel’s 2018 Nation State law, dubbed the “apartheid law” by Palestinian Knesset members, symbolically codifies this Jewish supremacy at the national level by explicitly stating “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people.” As such, the country has adopted a constitutional mandate for institutionalized discrimination.
That Palestinians are forced to wait in all aspects of their everyday lives is not an unforeseen outcome of Israel’s occupation. Nor is it merely a consequence of Palestinians being excluded from the existence Israel grants its own citizens, one typical of advanced nations defined by speed and connectivity. Rather, it is the intended design, an artificial reality of a hyper-regulated system of control which weaponizes time against Palestinians. That is why it is so cruel and sinister. Speaking to me for Palestine Deep Dive, activist Dr. Hanan Ashrawi described her own experiences of being forced to wait under occupation:
They redefine our time, the value of our time, and our energy… we have hundreds of checkpoints. And you could be going to work or somewhere and a checkpoint is there and you have to wait. You could wait anywhere from five minutes to five hours. You get angry, you get upset, you get exasperated. Because not only are they redefining your time, they are redefining your space, they are redefining the value of your work… so waiting is not just a temporal thing, you know, it becomes a defining factor of life.
Some Israeli soldiers have spoken out on their experiences serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), echoing what Palestinians have been saying for decades: “The spirit of things was to make life unbearable for the Palestinians. Stop them, inspect them a thousand and one times so that they won’t want to drive that route,” as an IDF staff sergeant told human rights group B’tselem. Another soldier recounted: “a twenty-day-old baby sick with jaundice. This happened. They didn’t let the ambulance with the baby cross the a-Zaim checkpoint, a Jerusalem checkpoint. They let it pass only after forty-five minutes.” But it is not only the living who Israel forces to wait. The occupation forces even delay the return of those they kill to Palestinian families, postponing the possibility for grief, burial, and closure. Israel’s weaponization of time is the intended product of an engineered environment designed to impose slowness and stasis on its victims, a form of collective punishment that incapacitates bodies and crushes spirits.
By making life as unbearable as possible, Palestinians are forced into “voluntary transfer” where they are not already forcibly expelled. Take for instance the experience of one Palestinian student, who wished to remain anonymous, who was simply attempting to receive a vaccine (as was her right as a student at Tel Aviv University). But living in the West Bank, she had to leave home at 4:00 a.m. just to arrive on time. As she told 972 Magazine, “I passed seven checkpoints, switched transportation eight times, walked in crazy weather, and reached the university at 9:30 AM” only to be denied the vaccine upon arrival because she was Palestinian. It took three weeks and a great deal of pressure before she finally received a vaccine. Years of living like this takes a toll, and it’s understandable why many Palestinians leave the occupied territory if they get the chance. Others aren’t so lucky.
The compound effects of Israel’s multi-tiered oppression are revealed in the numbers. The average Israeli lives 10 years longer than a Palestinian, and even Palestinians in Israel have a shorter life expectancy. In Gaza, an estimated 38 percent of young people have considered suicide. There is no “post-traumatic safety,” as Palestinian psychiatrist Samah Jabr notes, since the threats continue to be reproduced.
In a world wracked by COVID, those threats have become even greater. Some international pressure has been applied to Israel to urgently supply vaccines to Palestinians, but it has not been enough. Politicians in the U.K. and U.S. have called on Israel to vaccinate all Palestinians while urging their own governments to increase diplomatic pressure toward Israel. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International—as well as a collective of 30 human rights and health organizations—have called on Israel to do the same. Sir Geoffrey Bindman, a U.K. legal expert on human rights, has suggested the correct response from the international community would be sanctions from U.N. members against Israel for violating its Fourth Geneva Convention obligations. However, given the international sway of the U.S. and the Biden administration’s commitment to unconditional aid for Israel, it’s hard to see that happening. Without meaningful action, can there be any optimism for meaningful change?
Now, as before, Israel continues to exploit time to further its settler-colonialism. In 1967, Eshkol sought to strengthen Israel’s grip over newly occupied territory by running out the clock on its inhabitants. “[For] the record I’m prepared to say this: There’s no reason for the government to determine its position on the future of the West Bank right now,” he said. “We’ve been through three wars in 20 years; we can go another 20 years without a decision.” Disasters like COVID only accelerate the process of absorption and consolidation—in another 20 years, who knows what the occupation may look like?
We must recognize even the term “occupation” itself is used misleadingly by Israel, implying temporariness as it obscures decades of permanent ethnic cleansing. This is a tactic Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians know only too well. The historian Prof. Avi Shlaim notes how Netanyahu “spent his first three years as [prime minister] in a largely successful attempt to arrest, undermine, and subvert the [Oslo] accords” while rapidly expanding settlements to create new “facts on the ground.” And today with the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Israeli war crimes looming, Israel may seek to delay the process through “deferral” to allow time for political maneuvering. As international law expert Nick Kaufman wrote in Haaretz recently: “It would be unfortunate for Israel to miss the opportunity of deferral which could provide the ideal excuse for reinitiating peace talks with the Palestinians.”
It is clear that while Israel continues to force Palestinians to wait for lifesaving vaccines, it knows how to act rapidly when this suits Zionist purposes. In February, Israeli authorities demolished, forced people to demolish, or seized 153 Palestinian structures in the West Bank, the fourth highest such figure in a single month since records began in 2009. The fact Israel is cynically exploiting a deadly pandemic using enforced delay to strength its settler-colonialism comes as no surprise to those familiar with Palestinian experiences of waiting under occupation. But perhaps now this seemingly invisible violence is more grossly illuminated than ever before.
Palestinians are not passive bystanders to tragedy—they have agency and constantly use their power to disrupt Israel’s attempt to deny their ability to lead meaningful lives. Take for instance the Great March of Return in Gaza, a “cry for life” in 2018 that featured mass mobilizations and collective protest each week for 18 months. Or take the countless, weddings, festivals, anniversaries, and celebrations of rich cultural history across Palestine which disrupt the painful temporal stagnation Israel attempts to impose on Palestinian lives. There is no short-term fix for delivering meaningful change. But by amplifying Palestinian voices, listening to their stories, and recentering their experiences while opening space for them to lead from the front in their struggle for liberation, advocates may find new ways to pressure national governments into supporting Palestinian freedom. As any Palestinian could tell you, COVID means that real international pressure is needed more urgently than ever.