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Palestinians reject demand not to send some shots to Gaza

Israel starts delivery of at least a million COVID vaccine doses to Palestinians

In exchange, Jewish state will receive future shipments earmarked for Ramallah; Israel has faced widespread criticism for failing to help Palestinians with inoculation drive

Israel begins the transfer of some 1 million vaccines to the Palestinian Authority on Friday June 18 2021 (COGAT)
Israel begins the transfer of some 1 million vaccines to the Palestinian Authority on Friday June 18 2021 (COGAT)

Israel on Friday began transferring some 1 million Pfizer vaccine doses to the Palestinians to help them with their floundering coronavirus vaccination campaign, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said Friday.

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said it would transfer doses that are about to expire, and that in exchange, in September and October, Israel would receive shipments of Pfizer vaccines that were originally meant to go to the Palestinians.

“The plan was approved based on the fact that Israel’s current vaccine stockpile is sufficient for its current needs,” the PMO statement said.

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.

A first batch of some 100,000 doses was transferred to the Palestinians on Friday.

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 sign a deal with the Palestinian Authority.

COGAT said Israel would get the new doses in September or October.

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

“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.”

Al-Kaila said that the PA had signed a deal with Pfizer to receive 4 million doses, including the million doses that would arrive now from Israel.

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 and that a separate contract was signed just between the PA and Pfizer.

The move comes after Israel faced months of intense criticism from rights groups and medical professionals for its failure to significantly assist the Palestinians.

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)

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.

On Thursday, Haaretz reported that the decision to supply the vaccines was made by the previous government under Benjamin Netanyahu, but there had been no follow-through.

Last month, Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy urged Israel to help vaccinate the Palestinians, saying that failing to do so risked undermining the gains of Israel’s own vaccination drive.

“We need to help the Palestinians and quickly assist their vaccination program because it can affect the morbidity here among us,” said Levy, speaking to the Kan public broadcaster.

“We have to give or sell the stockpiles of vaccines that we have, or help them find vaccines,” he said. “As soon as a [government] decision is made, we will do so quickly.”

Health Ministry Director-General Prof. Chezy Levy speaks during a press conference about the Coronavirus, in Jerusalem on June 21, 2020. (Flash90)

Levy also said that Israel should demand that Palestinians coming into the country for medical treatment first present a negative virus test.

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.

Related: Israel may toss millions of vaccines. Why won’t it give them to the PA instead?

The PA has begun receiving vaccines through COVAX, a global vaccine program for poor and middle-income countries backed by the World Health Organization. The program aims to provide enough free doses to immunize up to 20 percent of a participating country’s population; around 90 countries have signed up for the program.

Palestinian workers wait to be vaccinated by Magen David Adom staff at the Sha’ar Efraim checkpoint in the West Bank, March 4, 2021 (COGAT)

The doses received so far by the PA for use in the West Bank to date include 100,000 from China and 58,000 from Russia. Most of the remainder were AstraZeneca doses sent through COVAX.

Israel also donated 5,000 Moderna doses and 200 Pfizer doses for Palestinian medical workers.

The Hamas-run Gaza Strip has received 111,000 doses to date, including 50,000 from COVAX, 60,000 Russian Sputnik V doses from the UAE and 1,000 Sputnik V doses from the PA.

COVAX intends to eventually provide about 400,000 AstraZeneca shots to the Palestinians, according to UNICEF.

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 13 on Wednesday.

At the height of the pandemic, there were 88,000 active cases in the country and 1,228 serious cases; as of Thursday, there were 248 active infections and 24 people in serious condition.

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