After public pressure and calls for greater transparency, the Palestinian Authority acknowledged Tuesday that some of the few COVID-19 vaccines in its possession did not go to healthcare workers, but rather to government officials, the Jordanian royal court and the Palestinian national soccer team.
The news infuriated many Palestinians, as the Palestinian leadership has yet to begin a public vaccination campaign. The Palestinian Authority Health Ministry had previously said that the handful of doses available would be given first to healthcare workers and then to the elderly and other at-risk groups.
Among those given vaccines were security officials working in the offices of PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, 100 Palestinian students heading abroad to study, fieldworkers in the Central Elections Committee, PA government ministers, Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee members over the age of 65, and some foreign embassy staff in Ramallah.
Given that Abbas is a PLO Executive Committee member, it is likely that the PA President was vaccinated as well. A spokesperson for the PA Presidency did not respond to a request for comment.
The Palestinian national soccer team was also quietly immunized. The Health Ministry explained that the team had been asked to play a match abroad representing Palestine, and that a coronavirus immunization was a condition for their participation.
As of Tuesday, only 12,000 vaccines have reached Ramallah, the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry said. Approximately 2,000 Moderna vaccines were sent by Israel to vaccinate medical staff, and another 10,000 were Russian Sputnik V vaccines sent as a donation by Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Palestinian Authority sent around 2,000 Sputnik vaccines to Gaza.
The PA acknowledged that it also quietly transferred 200 doses to Jordan. A spokesperson for the PA government had publicly denied the report, first published in Hebrew media, at a press conference in Ramallah.
“200 doses were sent to the Jordanian royal court after they requested it and with the approval of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas,” the Health Ministry said in a statement.
Still, the Health Ministry claimed that 90% of the vaccines it had distributed in the West Bank — around 9,800 vaccines — had gone to frontline health care workers.
The announcement sparked outrage among Palestinians, who are currently seeing a major surge in coronavirus cases in the West Bank. Palestinian Authority areas saw 1,819 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, with 28 patients on ventilators.
“Israel, the occupation state, has far more respect for and fear of its own people than you,” one furious commentator wrote on the Health Ministry’s Facebook page. “It even cares more for Arab workers… all you’ve done is inflict corruption and nepotism on us, while the rest of the people die from coronavirus or enter quarantine and die from hunger.”
Popular Palestinian comedian and social media commentator Alaa Abu Diab wrote: “The few vaccines available are still being distributed brazenly to those close to the government, despite the deaths and the tremendous pressure on the medical sector, which is already rotten because of their corruption.”
Rumors that some Palestinians were jumping ahead in line to receive vaccines had swirled on Palestinian social media for weeks. Some of those vaccinated — such as Bethlehem-based journalist Nasser al-Laham, who edits the popular Ma’an news site — even uploaded photographs to Facebook as they got the shot.
هو اي نعم ناصر اللحام بستاهل التطعيمبس في ناس اولى يوخذو اللقاح
On Saturday, a coalition of civil society organizations called for a clear accounting of who had been immunized.
The distribution of the vaccine is taking place “outside the framework of a clear and published plan…and within the framework of patronage and connections that seek the private interest at the expense of the public interest,” the Aman coalition, a civil society group, said on Saturday.
The first major shipment of coronavirus vaccines had previously been expected to reach Palestinians during the first week of March. But that target date — like several others before it — appears to have fallen through.
“There is no deadline yet for the arrival of the vaccine,” Health Ministry spokesperson Kamal al-Shakhra said on Monday during an interview with Voice of Palestine Radio.