Israel insists vaccine shipment rejected by Palestinians ‘perfectly sound’

Jerusalem hopes to solve dispute that saw Ramallah reject 100k doses with close expiration date; Health Ministry: Palestinians knew all details in advance

Palestinians receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the West Bank city of Hebron, on March 27, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinians receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in the West Bank city of Hebron, on March 27, 2021. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Israel on Saturday insisted that COVID-19 vaccines delivered to the Palestinian Authority the previous day, only to be rejected, were “perfectly sound” and identical to vaccines being given to Israelis.

Ramallah said it was canceling the agreement that would see some 1 million Pfizer vaccine doses handed over to the PA, citing the close expiration date of the doses. It said it had rejected a first batch of some 100,000 doses transferred to it. The doses were set to expire at the end of June.

But the Health Ministry in Jerusalem expressed surprise at the move, saying in a statement Saturday that the doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech inoculation were “perfectly sound” and “identical in every way to the vaccines currently being given to citizens of  Israel.”

Officials say it is standard practice to use vaccines whose expiration date is close, and so long as the date has not passed, manufacturers deem them perfectly safe.

Ramallah is reported to have feared the close expiration date would lead to skepticism and a fear of inoculation among the Palestinian population.

The rest of the vaccines set for delivery have an expiration date at the end of July, Israeli Health Ministry officials said Saturday afternoon.

The Health Ministry said Saturday the Palestinians knew in advance of the doses’ expiration date. Ramallah stated Friday afternoon that the delivery was in order, but four hours later said it was rejecting it. “We hope that the vaccination campaign in the Palestinian Authority will begin soon,” the Israeli ministry said.

According to several Hebrew media reports Saturday afternoon, Israel still hopes to reach understandings with the PA so that the vaccines are not wasted.

But officials told Channel 12 that the first batch of 100,000 doses was now likely to be thrown out. The West Bank-based government has not yet returned the delivery.

An unnamed diplomatic official told Haaretz that the PA canceled the deal due to criticism from its public over the apparent close expiration date. PA officials had come under heavy criticism on social media after the agreement was announced Friday, with Palestinians accusing them of accepting subpar vaccines and suggesting they might not be effective.

A Palestinian member of a health ministry mobile unit vaccinates an elderly Palestinian against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in the village of Dura near Hebron in the West Bank, on June 9, 2021. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)

Meanwhile unnamed Palestinian health officials quoted by Channel 12 said they regarded the deal as a “political, health, and ethical scandal” and claimed it would have led to a health disaster if the deal had gone through

And the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist group called the deal “humiliating” and claimed it “could have harmed human life.”

On Friday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said it would transfer doses for the Palestinians immediate use, and that in exchange, in September and October, Israel would receive shipments of Pfizer vaccines that were originally meant to go to the Palestinians.

A statement from the Health Ministry said Israel would deliver between one million and 1.4 million doses and would receive an identical number of doses in return.

The Israeli military’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which administers Palestinian civilian affairs, said it had been working for several weeks to reach a deal with the PA.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz spoke Friday with PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila.

Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai al-Kaila (WAFA)

“The coronavirus does not recognize borders or differences between peoples,” Horowitz tweeted. “This important move to swap vaccines is in all of our interests. I hope this move will lead to further cooperation between Israel and our Palestinian neighbors in other fields.”

Palestinians portrayed the agreement differently, saying Pfizer had suggested the transfer as a way of speeding up its delivery of 4 million doses that the PA had already paid for in an agreement reached directly with the drug company.

“This is not an agreement with Israel, but with the Pfizer company,” al-Kaila said Friday, before the deal was called off, according to the official Wafa news agency.

Al-Kaila said that during three-way negotiations between the PA, Israel and Pfizer, Israel demanded that none of the vaccines be transferred to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip and that the contract not be signed by the State of Palestine.

She said the Palestinians refused both demands.

The move came after Israel faced months of criticism from rights groups and medical professionals for its failure to significantly assist the Palestinians in procuring vaccines. Israel said it had no responsibility to do so.

The US, which has been pushing for greater cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians, welcomed the move.

“The United States welcomes cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to provide over 1 million COVID-19 vaccines to the Palestinian people. The fight against COVID-19 requires a global response,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price.

In this Feb. 23, 2021, file photo, Palestinians take a selfie after receiving the coronavirus vaccine from an Israeli medical team at the Qalandia checkpoint between the West Bank city of Ramallah and Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

While Israel has launched a world-beating vaccination drive, the Palestinian Authority is struggling to vaccinate its population.

According to the PA health ministry as of this week, 436,275 people had received at least one dose, with some 260,000 having received both doses.

Those figures include the more than 100,000 Palestinian workers that Israel has vaccinated since March, as they come into regular contact with Israelis at their workplaces.

It also includes some 52,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip who have been vaccinated.

Israel has until now refrained from initiating a campaign to vaccinate the general Palestinian population, despite calls from Israeli nonprofits, a petition to the High Court of Justice, and senior health experts’ urgings that it do so.

Israel has maintained that under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinians are responsible for immunizations in the West Bank. Gaza, meanwhile, is controlled by the Hamas terror group.

The Palestinians suffered their worst COVID-19 wave in March and April, which peaked at almost 3,000 new cases a day. However, following a strict lockdown, figures have dropped to some 250 cases daily.

Though the security barrier separates most of the West Bank from Israel, and there is a near-hermetic fence between Israel and Gaza, the entire region is seen as one epidemiological unit.

People shop at Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv on June 14, 2021, after the Health Ministry announced the end of the obligation to wear a mask in closed public places. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

For instance, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s travelers’ health section lists “Israel, including the West Bank and Gaza.” Because Israel and the territories are grouped together, the US State Department in April included Israel among 116 countries on its “Level Four: Do Not Travel” advisory list, citing “unprecedented” risk due to a “very high level of COVID-19.”

That came despite Israel having lifted almost all its virus restrictions, and in recent days even the indoor mask mandate as well.

Israel’s mass vaccination drive, which has already given both shots to over half the population, along with lockdown measures, brought down the number of new daily cases (based on a weekly average), from 8,600 at the peak of the health crisis to just 25 on Thursday.

At the height of the pandemic, there were 88,000 active cases in the country and 1,228 serious cases; as of Friday, there were 238 active infections and 23 people in serious condition.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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