Israel plans to transfer some 1.2 million Pfizer vaccines to the Palestinians in the coming days to help them with their floundering coronavirus vaccination campaign, the Haaretz news site reported on Thursday.
The move was decided during a meeting Thursday between new Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and senior Health Ministry officials and comes after Israel faced months of intense criticism from rights groups and medical professionals for failing to assist the Palestinians.
The report said that the decision to supply the vaccines had been taken by the previous government under Benjamin Netanyahu, but there had been no follow through on the decision.
The report said the vaccines would be in the form of “a loan,” with Israel to give Ramallah doses from its stockpile of Pfizer vaccines, with the expectation that they would be replenished with doses that the Palestinians have on order.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett was expected to make a formal announcement in the coming days, with the transfer happening in coordination with the health and defense ministries, the report said.
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 our 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,” he said.
Levy also said that Israel should demand that Palestinians coming into Israel 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.
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.
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.
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.