Israel to provide COVID vaccines to peacekeeping force in Sinai — report

Request to vaccinate multinational observers came from US and has been approved by Israel, despite freeze imposed on transfers of shots to other countries

Illustrative: Multinational peacekeepers participate in a casualty evacuation training exercise during their nine-month rotation in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, January 22, 2016. (Sgt. William Tanner, 2d Cavalry Regiment, US military)
Illustrative: Multinational peacekeepers participate in a casualty evacuation training exercise during their nine-month rotation in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt, January 22, 2016. (Sgt. William Tanner, 2d Cavalry Regiment, US military)

Israel has agreed to supply coronavirus vaccines to the multinational force of peacekeepers stationed in the Sinai Peninsula, following a request from the US, the Kan public broadcaster reported Sunday.

The move comes despite Israel last week halting its plan to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of friendly nations as authorities examine whether it was in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s authority to order the move.

The request to provide the 14-nation Multinational Force and Observers (MFO)  peacekeeping force with some 2,400 vaccines was received by the Defense Ministry and was approved by the relevant legal authorities, Kan reported.

American and Fijian soldiers make up the bulk of the force that oversees Israel’s 1979 peace treaty with Egypt.

The decision to supply excess vaccines comes amid controversy over Israel’s vaccine distribution.

On Thursday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz called for a halt in the shipments, saying Israel’s stockpile of vaccines is the property of the state. He attacked the prime minister’s go-it-alone approach and questioned Netanyahu’s claims that there are really excess supplies when Israelis still have not been fully vaccinated.

Israel’s Justice Ministry put a freeze on a plan that reportedly would have seen up to 100,000 vaccine doses sent to numerous countries.

In a statement, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said he had received a number of requests to review Netanyahu’s decision. One of those requests, he said, came from Netanyahu’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, who told Mandelblit he had been instructed, apparently by the prime minister, to “freeze any action on the matter.”

It was the latest twist in a saga that has raised questions at home about Netanyahu’s decision-making authority as well as his move to help far-flung nations in Africa and Latin America at a time when the neighboring Palestinian territories are struggling to secure their own vaccine supplies. The plan has also illustrated how at a time of global shortages, the vaccine has become an asset that can be used for diplomatic gain.

A paramedic with Israel’s Magen David Adom medical services vaccinates a Palestinian woman in a mobile clinic on February 26, 2021, at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Photo by AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

On Sunday, Israel’s government approved a plan to vaccinate over 120,000 Palestinians who are legally employed in Israeli communities, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians said in a statement.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, which administers Palestinian civilian affairs, announced that it would roll out an immunization campaign at border crossings and industrial zones across the West Bank in the next few days. According to COGAT, Israeli healthcare workers will administer the shots.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets actress Carmit Mesilati Kaplan, right, during a visit to the Khan theater ahead of the re-opening of the culture sector, in Jerusalem on February 23, 2021. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool Photo via AP)

Netanyahu, who is up for reelection on March 23, has staked his political success on Israel’s successful vaccination drive, in which about half of the country’s 9.3 million people have been inoculated with at least one dose in just under two months.

Despite the freeze, one delivery had already landed in Honduras, the country’s President Juan Orlando Hernandez announced, saying the doses will go to frontline workers. The Czech Republic said Tuesday that it received 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the Jewish state.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said Israel has hundreds of thousands of surplus vaccines and announced he had personally decided to share a small quantity of them with several friendly countries he did not name, as a mostly symbolic thank-you “in return for things we already have received.”

The revelation was striking because Israel has seen widespread international condemnation for sharing only a small fraction of virus-fighting shots with the Palestinians.

Health officials have noted that Israel will be unable to fully defeat the virus if Palestinians remain unvaccinated, given the regular contact between the populations. Israel has sent roughly 2,000 of its own doses to the Palestinian Authority and has pledged an additional 3,000 doses that have yet to be delivered. It has allowed the transfer of 10,000 doses of the Sputnik vaccine donated by Russia to the PA, and 2,000 those doses were transferred to the Gaza Strip last week.

Vials of coronavirus vaccines at a Clalit vaccination center in the northern city of Safed on February 22, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

According to Hebrew media reports, the countries Israel is planning to provide with vaccines include Cyprus, Hungary, Guatemala, the Czech Republic, Maldives, Ethiopia, Chad, Kenya, Uganda and Guinea. Each country will receive between 1,000 and 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

Among the 19 countries reportedly slated to get 1,000-5,000 vaccine doses each is Mauritania, which has no diplomatic ties with Israel. US officials told The Times of Israel last month that Mauritania was close to normalizing relations with Israel before former US president Donald Trump’s term ended.

According to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office, Israel has been contacted by numerous countries with requests for vaccines. The statement didn’t name the countries or the type of vaccines that will be donated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (C) attend a ceremony for the arrival of a plane carrying a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines, at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on January 10, 2021. (Motti Millrod/Pool/AFP)

Both coronavirus czar Nachman Ash and Health Ministry Director-General Chezy Levy said they weren’t consulted regarding the plan. Top government ministers were also kept in the dark.

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