Israel denies COVID vaccine to Palestinian student at Tel Aviv University

The student, who lives in the West Bank, was barred from receiving a vaccine after traveling for hours to the university for a campus-wide vaccination drive.

Israel’s Health Ministry barred a Palestinian woman from the occupied West Bank who studies at Tel Aviv University from receiving the COVID-19 vaccine during a campus-wide vaccination drive last month.

In mid-February, Tel Aviv University sent an email to students and faculty to announce the establishment of an on-campus vaccination center to assist in Israel’s efforts to “vaccinate the population against the coronavirus,” in cooperation with Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical service. According to the email, “the vaccine will be made available to the entire university community — workers and students, who have yet to receive their first dose.”

The Palestinian student, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her safety, said that upon receiving the email, she inquired with her program whether she was eligible for the vaccination. After receiving a positive response, she began to plan her journey to the university — a trip she has to make regularly to get to her classes, as a Palestinian living in the occupied Palestinian territories with a travel permit authorized by the Israeli army. She left her home at 4 a.m. “I passed seven checkpoints, switched transportation eight times, walked in crazy weather, and reached the university at 9:30 a.m.”

When she arrived, the medical staff asked her for ID or proof of health insurance. “After they realized I am Palestinian, they told me that this is impossible — that they could not enter my name into the system and I cannot be vaccinated,” she said. “I stood there and watched everyone get the vaccine and leave,” she continued. “I was the only one who didn’t get vaccinated. It’s unfair to just stand there and watch everyone get their vaccine.”

It’s unclear whether other Palestinian students who are not Israeli citizens were also turned away.

In a letter sent to the university administration, the student described how she waited at the university’s makeshift vaccine site for six hours, and how she was given a number of excuses as to why she could not receive the vaccine, including her lack of Israeli health insurance, the inability to receive such health insurance as a Palestinian, and even the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over supplying the latter with vaccinations for Palestinians in the West Bank.

“Yesterday, I went through one of the toughest awakening experiences to know that to the system I am less of a human, less of a student, and I am not entitled to the same rights,” she wrote in her letter.

“During that long day, many approached me to express their apologies,” she wrote in her letter to the university. “I don’t have a problem with individuals, on the contrary, they were very nice and supportive.” She said that one university representative even offered to compensate her for the travel expenses from the West Bank to Tel Aviv, an offer the student found insulting. “I want justice and equality, not charity,” she wrote to the university.

Despite requests from human rights organizations in Israel, the Israeli government has refused to procure vaccinations to Palestinians in the West Bank and has even tried to prevent the transfer of vaccines to Gaza.

In early February, Israel began vaccinating undocumented people, including foreign workers and asylum seekers, yet the Health Ministry initially stated that the vaccination campaign would not apply to “Palestinians working in Israel with or without visas.” On Sunday, following several weeks of public pressure, the Israeli cabinet approved a plan to vaccinate the approximately 100,000 Palestinian workers living in Israel and in West Bank settlements.

Despite the Health Ministry’s insistence on refusing to vaccinate the Palestinian student, she said that Tel Aviv University went to great lengths to try and get her a vaccine. One university coordinator spoke to the medical staff on site and called the Health Ministry, she said, while senior university officials arrived at one point to try to help, to no avail. According to the student, the university staff also spoke to the administration at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, the city’s major hospital, yet nothing helped. She was later told that the university president had sent a letter to the Health Ministry on the matter.

In a comment to +972, the Health Ministry claimed it was not contacted by Tel Aviv University on the matter, and that had the university reached out, the student would have been vaccinated as “an exception.”

“I cannot find words to describe how I feel,” her letter continued. “I am an advocate for global citizenship and coexistence, yet this experience challenged my beliefs and put them to test, and left me helpless and unable to defend my arguments. I am really disappointed and traumatized.”

Tel Aviv University offered the following response to the incident:

The university considers both disease prevention and vaccine accessibility for the entire campus community, faculty, and students, extremely important, and therefore has initiated a vaccination day in collaboration with Magen David Adom. Unfortunately, the staff who were there refused to vaccinate a female student living in the [West Bank] in light of the sweeping policy established by the Health Ministry, which, so far, has not allowed for vaccinating Palestinians.

In the wake of the incident, the university president wrote a letter to the director general of the Health Ministry on the same day, requesting a plan that would allow Palestinian students with an entry permit into Israel for the purpose of studies to be vaccinated the same way all other students are. We hope that the change in the Health Ministry’s approach regarding the vaccination of Palestinian workers, which was announced yesterday, will also provide a plan for the vaccination of [Palestinian] students.

This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.