In East Jerusalem, vaccine turnout climbs — but lags behind infection rates

Health officials report slight improvement in people getting shots, but it may be too little, too late as Palestinian neighborhoods see sky-high coronavirus positivity numbers

East Jerusalemites receive COVID-19 vaccine injections at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old City on February 26, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
East Jerusalemites receive COVID-19 vaccine injections at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem Old City on February 26, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In a quiet schoolyard in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiya, a handful of Palestinian residents made small talk as they waited their turn to be vaccinated Saturday.

“Have you signed up to get vaccinated, Ahmad?” someone called from a balcony overlooking the area to a friend down in the yard. His friend yelled back: “I just got my first shot!” and flashed two thumbs up.

Issawiya, one of East Jerusalem’s poorest neighborhoods, has led the coronavirus vaccination charge over the past two weeks, health officials say. The surge in vaccinations was aided by Magen David Adom, together with local leaders, who worked together to set up a vaccination center in a local middle school.

“People here have started to realize that the vaccine is not going to hurt them. They saw their relatives get vaccinated and there was no harm done,” said local leader Omar Atiyeh.

East Jerusalem Palestinians have lagged behind the rest of the capital in being immunized. Around 61% of Jerusalemites currently eligible for a vaccine have received at least one dose: 45% among Palestinians, 54% among ultra-Orthodox, and 76% among those who belong to the so-called “general public” — neither Arab nor Haredi.

Issawiya residents wait at a local middle school to be vaccinated against coronavirus on February 27, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

East Jerusalem Palestinians even lag behind Arab Israeli towns and cities, which have seen around 32% of all residents receive at least one vaccine dose, compared to 23% of all East Jerusalemites.

“We know that the number of those being vaccinated in East Jerusalem is low. It’s beginning to rise because people’s awareness is starting to rise, but it remains extremely low,” said Fadi Idkeydik, who directs Magen David Adom’s activities in East Jerusalem.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in 1967 and annexed it in 1980, in a move not recognized by the international community. Most of the 350,000 Palestinians living in Jerusalem hold the status of permanent residents, entitling them to Israeli health care and national insurance.

Many health officials have blamed Palestinian social media, which they say is rife with coronavirus denial and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories.

“We see incredible stories being told: they want to use the vaccine to kill the Arabs, get rid of the Arabs, they want to sterilize us,” Idkeydik said.

But at the same time, Issawiya, a neighborhood known by most Israelis as the location of frequent nighttime clashes between police and Palestinian residents, has emerged as East Jerusalem’s most vaccinated neighborhood. According to Health Ministry figures, around 74% of the neighborhood’s 10,527 residents eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose.

Fadi Idkeydik, East Jerusalem director at Magen David Adom in Issawiya on Saturday, February 27, 2021 (Aaron Boxerman/Times of Israel)

Issawiya’s success shows that making vaccines accessible is as important as fighting vaccine denialism, said Clalit official Fouad Abu Hamid, who directs a clinic in Beit Safafa.

At the beginning of Israel’s vaccination campaign, East Jerusalemites mostly went to Clalit’s Sheikh Jarrah clinic to be vaccinated. The logistical challenges in bringing people from all over the city were enormous, Abu Hamid said at the time.

“Mobile stations, like in Issawiya, have played a critical role in getting people to be vaccinated. It proves that the issue is not just that people don’t want to be vaccinated — it’s that we have to break the barriers that prevent people from reaching the vaccines,” Abu Hamid said.

Jerusalem is a sprawling city, extending over 125 square kilometers (48 square miles). Tens of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians also live beyond the security barrier that snakes through its eastern half, cutting off whole neighborhoods. Those who live on the other side must cross through the Qalandiya checkpoint — an infamous traffic chokepoint — in order to be vaccinated.

Munir Zughayyer, an activist in Kafr Aqab — a neighborhood beyond the barrier — told The Times of Israel in January that crossing the checkpoint to reach the main clinic in Sheikh Jarrah could take two to three hours, noting that the checkpoint occasionally shuts down for hours at a time with no warning. Most people, Zughayyer said, would take public transportation, adding to the costs and time of travel.

Over the past few weeks, health care providers and Magen David Adom have opened temporary stations in Kafr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp in an attempt to reach East Jerusalem residents beyond the security barrier.

“We go to them. In all the areas which are not accessible in Kafr Aqab and so on, we open a temporary station and work to reach them,” said Clalit Sheikh Jarrah clinic director Dima Bitar.

Too little, too late?

The apparent uptick in vaccinations, however, has not come quick enough to prevent East Jerusalem from entering a new wave of coronavirus.

Even as West Jerusalem cases drop due to rising vaccine rates, Palestinians are seeing a sharp spike. East Jerusalem Palestinians saw six deaths from coronavirus on Saturday, the highest since the beginning of the pandemic.

“There’s what we’ve seen before — that the lockdown restrictions were not followed in East Jerusalem. But we’re also seeing the effect of the rapidly spreading British mutation and the lack of vaccinations in the eastern part of the city,” Abu Hamid said.

As of Sunday afternoon, only Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem were marked as “red” high infection zones, according to a national ranking system. East Jerusalem Palestinians also saw 25% of cases coming back positive — in some cases as high as 30% — indicating that many cases are likely going undetected.

A health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine in East Jerusalem on February 3, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

In neighborhood after neighborhood, positivity rates show a sharp spike. According to Health Ministry figures, Kafr Aqab is seeing around 33% of tests come back positive. In the relatively well-heeled neighborhood of Beit Hanina, around 28% of tests are turning up positive. The areas also saw a 66% increase in cases over the past week.

“We’re seeing both higher numbers of people coming to be tested and higher positive test rates,” Bitar said. “When one person is infected, we’re seeing everyone in their family become infected.”

In Issawiya, 16-year-old volunteer Rihan said that even some of her friends and family had shunned the vaccine. But she said that people were finally coming around.

“There’s been an improvement. In the beginning, people were totally against the vaccine. But now people want to get back to normal life, lots of people are finally showing up,” she said.

A Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood gets vaccinated against the coronavirus at a Clalit Health Services clinic there, on January 12, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

But Thair Abeid, who coordinates Issawiya’s coronavirus response on behalf of the Jerusalem municipality, warned that in some ways, the easy part of the coronavirus fight in East Jerusalem was over. He ticked off some numbers: last week, over 1,000 Issawiya residents arrived to be immunized. This week, only around 550 did.

“Now around 70 percent of the residents here in Issawiya have been vaccinated or recovered from the virus. But the holdouts? It’s going to be very hard to convince them to get a shot,” Abeid lamented outside the entrance to the Issawiya vaccine center.

Meanwhile, the disease will continue to spread, Abeid said, as few East Jerusalem residents appear to be following the restrictions against mass gatherings.

As Abeid spoke, a deafening volley of fireworks began popping off nearby. He smiled grimly: “Another wedding. Every time I hear those fireworks going off I think, ‘These will be enough cases to keep me busy all week.’”

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