Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday called on Public Security Minister Amir Ohana to reverse his order not to vaccinate prisoners over the age of 60, saying the ban was illegal and made the fight against the coronavirus pandemic more difficult.
Gantz voiced his concerns in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asking the premier to intervene in the matter and order Ohana to rescind his decision.
“A public security minister who has lost it and a prime minister who gave up and and let this farce continue — that’s the only way to explain not vaccinating prisoners over the age of 60. This is a move that is illegal, politically motivated and life-threatening,” Gantz said in a statement.
Last month, Ohana instructed prison officials to refrain from vaccinating inmates against COVID-19 until further notice, after a Palestinian official said that security prisoners were expected to soon begin getting shots. Ohana’s ban included not only security prisoners, but all inmates.
This decision contradicted the orders of the Health Ministry — tasked with setting national policy on who should be vaccinated — which called for everyone over 60, including prisoners, to receive the injection. A number of vaccinations were specifically set aside for that purpose.
The public security minister called for vaccinations to be given only to prison guards, not inmates, until a larger number of non-incarcerated Israelis were inoculated.
Ohana, a member of the ruling Likud party, issued the statement after Qadri Abu Bakr, the chairman of the PLO’s Prisoners Affairs Commission, said the prisons service had told Palestinian prisoners that they would be vaccinated.
The attorney general’s office told Ohana that this order was given “without authority” — as only the Health Ministry was permitted to decide who should be vaccinated — “and thus cannot stand.”
Yet last week, Ohana told the attorney general’s office that he did not intend to withdraw his directive.
In his letter, Gantz said it was “very grave” that Ohana was contradicting the Health Ministry and attorney general, but “even more grave” that he was effectively overruling the judges who’d sentenced the prisoners by adding a denial of the vaccine to their sentences.
“This is a move that not only is illegal but harms the national fight against the coronavirus,” he wrote.
In response to the public security minister’s order, five human rights groups petitioned the High Court of Justice on Sunday to overturn the decision.
The petition, filed on behalf of ACRI, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, Adalah, HaMoked and Rabbis for Human Rights, demanded that the Israel Prisons Service “vaccinate the entire prisoner population according to the vaccination priority set by the Health Ministry, with an emphasis on prisoners aged 60 and over, and those in a high-risk group,” the organizations said in a joint statement.
“According to professional sources, prisoners are an at-risk population and action must be taken to vaccinate them in parallel with the at-risk populations at large,” the petition stated.
Responding to the petition, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein appeared to contradict Ohana, telling the Kan public broadcaster Sunday morning, “The only body that determines the immunization arrangements is the Priority Committee [of the Health Ministry].”
The petition also demanded that the prison service “prevent prioritizing the vaccination of prison staff over the prisoners.”
The petition was accompanied by a medical opinion from the Association of Public Health Physicians from the Israeli Medical Association that said: “Prisoners must be treated as a captive population. In the context of COVID-19, this is considered an at-risk population, both due to preexisting health issues and to the overcrowded conditions that increase the risk of infection and mortality.”
According to the medical association, “the State of Israel has an ethical obligation to offer the vaccines to the prisoner population.”
Israel is currently pushing ahead with its vaccination campaign and began to administer second doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine to the public on Sunday, three weeks after it began its national inoculation drive.