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Palestinians receive 72,000 AstraZeneca doses to boost stuttering vaccine drive

Just 3.44% of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have received a coronavirus vaccine, even as restrictions lifted in Israel

A shipment of AstraZenaca coronavirus vaccines, intended for use by Palestinians. (courtesy)
A shipment of AstraZenaca coronavirus vaccines, intended for use by Palestinians. (courtesy)

Palestinians received 72,000 doses of AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine through the international COVAX initiative on Monday, as health officials in the West Bank and Gaza struggle to accelerate their vaccination campaign.

The doses arrived at Ben Gurion Airport on Saturday and were transferred to Nablus and Gaza on Monday, according to the World Health Organization. Around 43,200 were handed to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and 28,800 were sent to the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.

An Israeli Defense Ministry official confirmed the vaccines’ arrival in a statement sent to reporters.

The Palestinians have lagged far behind Israel in coronavirus vaccinations, even as a stormy debate has raged over Israel’s alleged obligation to immunize them. So far, only around 3.44 percent of Palestinians have received a coronavirus vaccine, with supplies rapidly depleting in the Gaza Strip.

A medical worker of UNRWA gives a shot of the Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine at UNRWA’s clinic in the Rafah, in the southern Gaza, on March 3, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Even including Monday’s shipment, Palestinians still are far from herd immunity. As of Monday evening, Ramallah has received some 196,200 doses from various sources, far fewer than it needs to vaccinate the nearly 3 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank.

The diverse mix of shots includes 100,000 Chinese Sinopharm vaccines, 10,000 Russian Sputnik doses, along with Pfizer and AstraZenaca vaccines provided by the United Nations-backed COVAX initiative.

Israel also immunized another 105,000 West Bank Palestinians who hold permits to work in Israel.

In Gaza, health officials have received just 110,400 doses in total, enough for slightly more than 3% of the coastal enclave’s total population.

Gaza has seen an enormous surge in coronavirus cases in recent weeks, despite a partial lockdown imposed by the enclave’s Hamas rulers. Around 44% of coronavirus tests came back positive in Gaza on Monday, with health officials warning that a return to lockdown could be near.

The Palestinian Authority has contracted with several companies and countries in an attempt to purchase more coronavirus vaccines. Officials in Ramallah have said they signed a 2 million dose deal with AstraZeneca, but the shots never materialized.

On Monday, the Palestinian Authority cabinet signed off on another two vaccine deals: to purchase 500,000 more Sputnik V doses from Russia and 4 million doses of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine.

So far, the most reliable source of vaccines for Ramallah has been COVAX, a vaccine initiative for poor and middle-income countries backed by the United Nations. Palestinian health officials anticipate receiving some 400,000 vaccines from the initiative.

A nurse prepares a shot of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine at a clinic in Gaza City, March 21, 2021. (Adel Hana/ AP)

The vaccines arrive as the Hamas-ruled Gaza strip is seeing record infection rates. The coastal enclave saw a record 23 deaths from coronavirus in 24 hours on Saturday, the deadliest day in the coastal enclave since the beginning of the pandemic.

Infections have declined somewhat in the West Bank over the past week, leading the Palestinian Authority to loosen some restrictions, including reopening schools. But the Islamic holy month of Ramadan — a period often characterized by mass gatherings — began last week, leading to fears of a new surge in cases.

On Sunday, mostly-vaccinated Israel ended a legal requirement to wear masks in public so as to prevent the spread of the virus. The Jewish state 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.

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