After delays, Israel kicks off vaccination drive for 120,000 Palestinian workers

Health teams hope to immunize 1,000 a day at each of 8 vaccination stations, with several more set to open soon; campaign comes as West Bank cases spike

Ahmad Atwan, a Palestinian from a town near Hebron, receives the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Magen David Adom during an Israeli campaign to immunize Palestinians who work in Israel (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)
Ahmad Atwan, a Palestinian from a town near Hebron, receives the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Magen David Adom during an Israeli campaign to immunize Palestinians who work in Israel (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

JABA’A CHECKPOINT, West Bank — Palestinian workers eagerly lined up outside the Jaba’a checkpoint close to Beit Shemesh on Monday morning, as Israel officially launched its campaign to inoculate Palestinians who work in Israel against the coronavirus.

“This is truly an opportunity that isn’t available for everyone yet. I’m very happy that I had the opportunity, and I hope that everyone will be able to soon,” said Ahmad Atwan, 31, who works in construction near Beit Shemesh.

Around 122,000 Palestinians work in Israel or in Israeli settlements, according to Defense Ministry statistics. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, last week announced the initiative to vaccinate them.

After a slight delay — the operation was intended to begin on Sunday, but was pushed off by a day — eight West Bank crossings saw immunization stations open. An additional four vaccination centers are scheduled to open in industrial centers across the West Bank on Tuesday.

Palestinians were called in groups of four to sign up for the shot. Some had been bused over by employers eager to avoid work stoppages, while others had come of their own initiative on their way to work.

“We want as many people to get vaccinated as possible. In some cases, we coordinate with employers who reserve chunks of time… But in theory, everyone can show up without an appointment or a referral,” said Magen David Adom official Gershon Estrin, who is responsible for the Jaba’a station.

Palestinians working in Israel receive a COVID-19 vaccine shot, south of Tulkarm in the West Bank on March 8, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Magen David Adom has been tasked with implementing much of the vaccination campaign, operating as the “executive arm of the Health Ministry,” Estrin said. According to Estrin, each station aims to vaccinate around 1,000 Palestinians a day.

The line of Palestinians waiting to be vaccinated moved at a brisk clip as workers cycled through the process. Several dozen workers were vaccinated during the hour The Times of Israel spent at Jaba’a checkpoint.

By 4:30 p.m., around 5,000 Palestinian workers had been vaccinated across the West Bank, a spokesperson for COGAT said.

Turnout appeared high, seemingly unaffected by the chilling effect of the fake news and conspiracy theories that have kept some Arab Israelis from getting the vaccine. Some Palestinian workers agreed that they had heard conspiracy theories about the vaccines, but that they had not deterred them from showing up.

“I wasn’t afraid per se, but I know people who are. There’s talk on Facebook and social media that the vaccine could have bad effects on us in the long run,” said Murad Fares, a Palestinian construction worker from outside Bethlehem.

Atwan’s cousin, a hospital director, died of coronavirus a few months ago, Atwan said. His brother, also a doctor, had urged him to get the vaccine, but he agreed that conspiratorial thinking was as present in Palestinian society as anywhere else.

“At every level of society, there are people — despite everything that’s happened over the past year, in Europe and Italy and America — who think it’s all a conspiracy,” Atwan said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the 120,000 Palestinians who work in Israel and Israeli settlements have borne the brunt of repeated lockdowns. When Israel has issued major closures, it has often shuttered crossings and ordered Palestinian workers to remain in Israel for three weeks.

Employers are obligated to provide Palestinian workers with adequate shelter during such lockdowns. But most of the Palestinian workers at Jaba’a checkpoint said they’d seen anything but during the last closure.

“We slept at the construction site. I know a few workers who got sent to hotels, but they were in the overwhelming minority,” said Fares.

Ahmad Atwan, a Palestinian from a town near Hebron, after receiving a dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Magen David Adom during an Israeli campaign to immunize Palestinians who work in Israel (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

Current and former Israeli health officials have been advocating for months for Israel to help inoculate Palestinians, arguing that otherwise it will be impossible to achieve herd immunity in the country.

“It is in our common health and economic interest, as we live in a single epidemiological region, and we all need to take part in the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the region,” said COGAT director Kamil Abu Rukun in a statement announcing the operation to vaccinate Palestinian workers.

Palestinians at Jaba’a checkpoint were under no illusions as to why Israel had decided to immunize residents of the West Bank who work in Israel.

“We know that Israel is doing this to defend its own people. I came here with a Jewish friend of mine who picked me up. We chitchat all the way down the road to work — there’s interaction, and we Palestinians can easily bring the virus home or send it over into Israel,” Atwan said.

Israeli authorities have also made efforts to sanitize checkpoints and enforce public health measures where Palestinian workers enter Israeli areas. But in practice, little social distancing takes place, and some workers believe checkpoints were key infection sites.

“All the health experts call for social distancing. Okay, but go look at any checkpoint when we go through, and a thousand workers are shoved into a 300-square-meter area. There’s no room for distancing,” said Adnan al-Amli, a construction works manager employed in Kfar Saba.

Palestinians who work in Israel wait to be vaccinated by Jaba’a checkpoint close to Beit Shemesh on March 8, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/The Times of Israel)

The move to vaccinate Palestinian workers comes as the West Bank is seeing a rapid rise in coronavirus infections. There are currently 17,989 active coronavirus cases in the West Bank, one of the highest levels since the beginning of the pandemic.

Large swaths of the Palestinian Authority entered total lockdown over the weekend in an attempt to curb the rising infection rates, as hospitals reached full capacity in Ramallah and Bethlehem.

While Israel has vaccinated over 5 million of its citizens, the Palestinian Authority has yet to receive a single major vaccine shipment. Of the doses that did reach Ramallah, a substantial number were allegedly distributed to those with connections to the PA elite.

Several Palestinian workers expressed outrage over the reports that the PA had quietly distributed some of the few vaccines in its possession to those with connections rather than to frontline health care workers.

“It’s so unfair. I didn’t know anyone who got a vaccine until now, and then we see — and we’ve all known for a while now — that the so-called high and mighty have been receiving their own shots. And there are so few to go around,” said one worker, who preferred to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution.

Israel has come under criticism for not vaccinating Palestinians, many of whom live under Israeli military rule. The policy has become the subject of fierce debate in recent weeks as Israel’s vaccination campaign has surged ahead.

Human rights groups charge that international law requires Israel as an occupying power to provide vaccines for Palestinians.

Israel rejects the characterization that it occupies Palestinian territory, deeming the West Bank “disputed.” Israeli officials have also pointed to bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestinians which designate responsibility for health care to the Palestinian Authority.

“Israel, which occupies the Palestinian people, is totally responsible for vaccinating all the Palestinian people,” said al-Amli, the construction manager. “We have the PA, which can handle the operation. Give them vaccines.”

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