Palestinians start shots for medical staff with first vaccines, sent by Israel

PA doesn’t acknowledge source of 2,000 Moderna vaccines, which Israel says it transferred; some doses to be sent to Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip

Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai Al-Kaila receives a shot of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, February 3, 2021 (WAFA)
Palestinian Authority Health Minister Mai Al-Kaila receives a shot of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, February 3, 2021 (WAFA)

The Palestinian Authority began vaccinating its medical staff on Tuesday with the first shipment of vaccines to reach it, the PA Health Ministry said in a statement.

“We’ve begun vaccinating our medical teams, beginning with those in intensive care wards, as they stand in the first line of defense and face the coronavirus directly,” PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila said in an interview with official Palestinian media.

Al-Kaila did not mention where the 2,000 Moderna vaccines had come from. But according to the Israeli government, the shots were sent over by Jerusalem on Monday.

A Palestinian doctor receives a shot of the Moderna coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday, February 3, 2021 (WAFA)

While Israel has raced ahead in providing vaccines to its citizens — around 32 percent of Israelis had received at least one shot of the two-dose coronavirus vaccine as of Sunday — the Palestinians have only just begun vaccinating healthcare workers.

The stark contrast between the speed of the Israeli rollout and the Palestinian immunization campaign sparked calls for Israel to provide vaccines to the Palestinians.

Human rights groups have previously criticized Israel for not providing coronavirus vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. They argue that Israel occupies those areas, giving it the responsibility to care for the people living under Israeli control.

Israel disputes the claim that it occupies Palestinian areas. Jerusalem also points to bilateral agreements between the two sides which delegate responsibility for immunizations to the PA.

The Coordinator of Government Activity in the Territories — Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians — said on Monday that it had transferred 2,000 coronavirus vaccines for Palestinian healthcare workers through the Beitunia checkpoint south of Ramallah. Another 3,000 doses would be transferred “in the future,” COGAT said.

A senior Palestinian health official at first denied any knowledge of the matter to The Times of Israel. But the Health Ministry later acknowledged receiving the 2,000 Moderna vaccines — without mentioning that Israel transferred them.

Ramallah expects to begin its main coronavirus campaign in mid-February with the arrival of 50,000 doses of vaccines from various sources, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday.

The Palestinian Authority has contracted with four other parties — Moderna, AstraZeneca, China and Russia — to bring an amalgam of immunizations.

A health worker takes a sample to test for coronavirus at a health center in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on January 5, 2020 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Most of the vaccines set to arrive in February, however, come from a World Health Organization program known as COVAX, which aims to increase access to coronavirus vaccines for low- and middle-income countries. The program will vaccinate up to 20 percent of the Palestinian population for free.

COVAX announced on Monday that around 37,440 doses of the Pfizer vaccine were given the okay for “potential distribution from mid-February” to the Palestinians, pending approvals and agreements with manufacturers. The shots are set to be given to frontline health care workers.

Between 240,000 and 405,600 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were expected to arrive by late February, pending approvals by manufacturers and the WHO, the international body said on Monday.

In her remarks on Monday, al-Kaila pledged that vaccines would be sent to the Gaza Strip as well. Health officials in Ramallah have consistently promised that whatever vaccines reach the Palestinian Authority will be distributed equally throughout the territories.

Sending vaccines to Gaza is controversial among Israelis. Some have called for withholding vaccines from Gaza, which is ruled by the Hamas terror group, until Hamas returns Israeli captives and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.

An Israeli security official told The Times of Israel on condition of anonymity that vaccines would not be transferred to Gaza at this stage, but that no direct order had been issued by the political echelon to transfer vaccines or not. The official said that the Palestinian Authority has to yet to submit a formal request to send vaccines from Ramallah to Gaza.

Nonetheless, health officials in the coastal enclave began preparing their vaccination campaign on Monday by launching an app on which Gaza residents can register for immunization appointments.

“The vaccine is expected to arrive in the Gaza Strip in the immediate future. The expected quantity is around 15,000 doses, and health personnel, the elderly and those with chronic illnesses will be prioritized,” Hamas health official Majdi Dahir said in a statement.

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