The Palestinian Authority on Friday evening dramatically announced that it was canceling a deal in which Israel would supply it with some 1 million Pfizer vaccine doses to help with its floundering coronavirus vaccination campaign.
The PA said the doses, which Israel began shipping to the West Bank on Friday, are too close to expiring. However, Israeli officials insisted they were fine and should not be wasted.
“The professional teams in the ministry found that the vaccines we received today from Israel did not meet the specifications, so the government decided to return them,” said PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila.
PA government spokesman Ibrahim Milhim said that Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh has ordered the cancelation of the agreement and the return of the vaccines to Israel. He said the Palestinians would not accept “about-to-expire” vaccines from Israel.
PA officials had come under heavy criticism on social media after the agreement was announced earlier Friday, with Palestinians accusing them of accepting subpar vaccines and suggesting they might not be effective.
There was no immediate official Israeli reaction to the cancellation, which came after it was Shabbat in Israel, but Army Radio quoted a Health Ministry official as expressing incredulity.
“We don’t know what they want, the vaccines are fine,” the official said.
The Ynet news site said the vaccinations transferred to the Palestinians on Friday were good until the end of June and July, with Israel deliberately sending those first so they would not be wasted. The rest of the vaccines set for delivery have a later expiration date and were good for several months.
In announcing the agreement, Israel said the vaccines “will expire soon” without specifying the date.
Earlier Friday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said it would transfer doses for the Palestinians immediate use, 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.
Hand to hand: A first delivery of 100,000 Pfizer vaccines was transferred today by Israel to the Palestinian Authority. Over 1 million vaccines are scheduled to be transferred.
???? Min of Health/Cogat pic.twitter.com/K0sI6spTC5
— Alon Ushpiz (@AlonUshpiz) June 18, 2021
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz spoke Friday with 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.”
Palestinians portrayed the agreement differently, saying Pfizer had suggested the transfer as a way of speeding up its delivery of 4 million doses that the PA had already paid for in an agreement reached directly with the drug company.
“This is not an agreement with Israel, but with the Pfizer company,” al-Kaila said earlier Friday, before the deal was called off, according to the official Wafa news agency.
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.
The move comes after Israel faced months of intense criticism from rights groups and medical professionals for its failure to significantly assist the Palestinians.
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.
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 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.