After months of delays, the Palestinian Authority began its public coronavirus vaccination campaign on Sunday.
“The wheels are turning, and we are on our way to vaccinating everyone who needs and deserves a vaccine,” Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told reporters in Ramallah.
According to Health Minister Mai al-Kaila, priority will be given to front-line health care workers, the elderly — age 75 and above — and at-risk groups, such as those suffering from cancer.
The vaccine rollout follows the arrival in Israel of 61,000 vaccines earmarked for the Palestinians last Wednesday. The doses were sent by COVAX, an international vaccine-sharing mechanism backed by the World Health Organization and the United Nations.
Around 40,000 of the COVAX doses reached Ramallah last Wednesday, while the rest were sent directly to the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinians anticipate receiving another shipment of around 400,000 AstraZeneca vaccine doses through COVAX in the coming months. The program seeks to provide enough free vaccines to provide for 20% of the Palestinian population.
Despite the public fanfare, however, only 53,980 doses have reached Ramallah. Assuming every Palestinian receives two shots, that is enough to inoculate just 1% of West Bank Palestinians against the coronavirus.
The Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip has received around 82,000 coronavirus vaccine doses in total, enough to vaccinate around 2% of the population. Most was sent by the United Arab Emirates, which shipped some 60,000 doses to the coastal enclave at the request of exiled Palestinian politician Mohammad Dahlan.
In addition, Israel has vaccinated 105,000 Palestinians who work in Israel or Israeli settlements. Shtayyeh claimed in his remarks, however, that the PA had vaccinated them.
“Over the last two weeks, we have undertaken the inoculation of over 105,000 Palestinians who work in Israel. Health Ministry teams administered their shots,” Shtayyeh said.
He said he was optimistic that more coronavirus vaccines would arrive soon. But several deadlines provided by PA officials for the vaccines’ arrival have fallen through.
“By the middle of next month, we expect to receive another 100,000 doses from our friends in China, as well as another 50,000 from Russia,” Shtayyeh said.
Palestinian officials have also signed a contract with the British AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company for another two million doses, although it is unclear when they will arrive.
Ramallah has received a $23.9 million grant to fund the acquisition of coronavirus vaccines. The PA also received some funding from Qatar for the purpose, Shtayyeh said on Sunday, although he did not specify the sum.
Before Sunday, only about 9,800 vaccine doses had been distributed in the West Bank. But accusations of nepotism and corruption have dogged their distribution, with a substantial number of shots reportedly going to those close to government officials rather than to healthcare workers.
Ramallah has acknowledged that some doses went to government officials, some young students and the Palestinian national soccer team. But officials maintain that 90% of the vaccines were given to front-line healthcare workers.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas had also received a coronavirus shot, the official PA news agency WAFA confirmed on Saturday night.
“President Abbas received a vaccine in order to serve as a model and an example, to protect our people and our families,” Shtayyeh said.
But the announcement did not say when Abbas had received his shot, nor which kind of vaccine he had received.
Israel has acknowledged in court filings that it sent 200 Pfizer shots to the Palestinian Authority as a “humanitarian gesture” in early January. Ramallah has consistently denied the shipment — but that has not stopped speculation that the doses were quietly handed to senior officials.
Israel has come under criticism for not vaccinating Palestinians, many of whom live under Israeli military rule. Human rights groups charge that international law requires Israel as an occupying power to provide vaccines for Palestinians.
Israel rejects the characterization that it occupies Palestinian territory, deeming the West Bank “disputed.” Israeli officials have also pointed to bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestinians which designate responsibility for health care to the Palestinian Authority.
Ramallah’s vaccine campaign comes as the West Bank sees unprecedented infection rates among Palestinians. Despite over two weeks of tightened restrictions, infection rates have remained stubbornly high in PA areas.
There are currently 19,876 active coronavirus cases in the West Bank. A month ago in mid-February, there were fewer than half as many.
Around 1,845 Palestinians have died in the West Bank since the beginning of the pandemic last March, according to PA Health Ministry figures.