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Congressman urges Israel to continue vaccinating Palestinians, laments disparity

Jamaal Bowman deletes tweet criticizing Jerusalem after talks with local Jewish leaders, but then reissues plea, saying discrepancy reminds him of racial injustice in US

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Jamaal Bowman, the Democratic nominee for New York's 16th congressional district, smiles as he talks to the media on Nov. 3, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Jamaal Bowman, the Democratic nominee for New York's 16th congressional district, smiles as he talks to the media on Nov. 3, 2020 in the Bronx borough of New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Democratic Congressman Jamaal Bowman of New York penned a letter to Israel’s acting consul general in the city on Tuesday, criticizing the latter’s government for not doing more to vaccinate Palestinians and comparing the discrepancy to racial inequality in the US.

Bowman lauded the efforts made by Israel to vaccinate its own citizens at record-pace and said he was “heartened” by reports that Israel had agreed to transfer 5,000 doses to immunize Palestinian frontline medical staff. Thus far, 2,000 have made their way to the Palestinian Authority, which has begun inoculating health workers.

But Bowman said it was incumbent upon Israel to ensure that the millions of other Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza are vaccinated as well.

The letter to Israel’s Consul General in New York, Israel Nitzan, came five days after Bowman deleted a tweet that more harshly criticized the Jewish state over the same issue.

“This cruelty is another reminder of why the occupation must end,” he wrote last week.

Bowman’s office declined to explain why the congressman deleted the tweet, but a source with knowledge of the matter told The Times of Israel that the decision to do so followed conversations with local Jewish community leaders.

Bowman represents a solidly blue district made up of a majority of Black and Latino residents in the northern Bronx, but also includes several large Jewish communities that are slightly more conservative in Westchester County, requiring the Congressman to toe a narrow line on a variety of issues. He replaced four-time Congressman Elliot Engel earlier this year after defeating him in the Democratic primary. While he criticized the Israeli government during the campaign, he made sure to emphasize simultaneously that he did so while also identifying as pro-Israel and anti-boycott efforts — positions that differ from the so-called “squad” of progressive Democrats that he joined upon entering Congress.

Bowman and Nitzan are slated to meet later this month, their offices confirmed.

In his Tuesday letter to Nitzan, Bowman cited the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that an occupying power is required to provide vaccines to the inhabitants of the territories under its control.

“Israel, as an occupying power has a responsibility to provide vaccines to the Palestinian people,” he wrote. “It is therefore a concern that Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank will be receiving the vaccine from the Israeli government, but Palestinians in the West Bank will not.”

Israel rejects the claim that it occupies the West Bank, saying the territories it has ruled since 1967 are “disputed,” rather than occupied. It also notes that it has pulled out of Gaza. As such, Jerusalem has never accepted the applicability of that international law statute to the territories.

The Israeli government maintains it is not responsible for inoculating the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein has said that Israel will consider helping, once it has taken care of its own citizens.

The government points to the 1995 Oslo Accords, which stipulate that the Palestinian Authority is responsible for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, while both sides are to work together to combat epidemics.

Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai Al-Kaila receives a shot of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, February 3, 2021 (WAFA)

Bowman in the letter went on to point out that several Israeli rights group have made the same demand of Israel. He then cited Times of Israel reporting that quoted former Israeli Health Ministry Director-General Gabi Barbash who said, “The rule is very clear with coronavirus — if the virus is anywhere, it’s everywhere. We’ve seen how easily the virus jumps across the Green Line, to Kafr Qasim, Netanya, Haifa.”

“I hope you understand that this issue is personal for me,” Bowman wrote.

“As a Black man living in America, I know the feeling of being neglected by my government and society, of feeling like a second class citizen or not a citizen at all, in my own home,” the congressman said.

“I can understand the feelings of hopelessness and despair that Palestinians living in the West Bank might feel, reading in the news that the Israeli government has no plans to vaccinate them from a deadly disease wreaking havoc around the globe. I know what it feels like to see white Americans in the wealthy part of my district get different resources and treatment while just a few blocks away, Black Americans are neglected,” he added.

Nitzan thanked Bowman for the “sincere” letter in a reply tweet.

“I believe the situation is more complex & I see it differently, but I appreciate the opportunity for an open conversation about your concerns. I look forward to a meaningful relationship based on mutual respect,” the consul general wrote.

Evidently knowing that Bowman’s letter was coming, Nitzan published his own op-ed about the issue earlier Tuesday titled “Don’t fall for the cynical COVID-19 vaccine propaganda against Israel.”

“As they await the vaccine deliveries, Israel has gone beyond its duty to assist the PA healthcare system by enabling the arrival of international assistance since the outbreak of the pandemic, and supplying thousands of vaccines as humanitarian aid to the PA,” Nitzan writes in the op-ed.

Bowman is one of several Democrats who have criticized Israel over its vaccination policy. Senior House Rep. Joaquin Castro, freshman Rep. Marie Newman, former vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine and Rep. Rashida Tlaib have all voiced their concern over the matter.

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