Report: Health officials warn against withholding vaccines from Palestinians

Thousands of non-inoculated workers crossing over from West Bank pose risk for Israelis, experts say, while clarifying that citizens take priority

Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Meitar checkpoint near Hebron in the West Bank, May 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)
Palestinian workers enter Israel through the Meitar checkpoint near Hebron in the West Bank, May 5, 2020. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

Health Ministry officials reportedly believe that a failure by Israel to provide vaccines from the stocks it has purchased to the Palestinian Authority would be a misstep.

Recent days have seen reports that the World Health Organization appealed to Israel to send inoculations to the PA, but Jerusalem said it would not do so at this time.

Ramallah has yet to publicly ask Israel — which has emerged as a world leader in vaccinations — to take responsibility for providing vaccines to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, it has still criticized Israel for not doing so.

The issue of Israel’s legal responsibility to the Palestinians in a pandemic is highly contentious and hotly debated by international law experts. The 1995 Oslo II Accord delegates responsibility for health care to the Palestinian Authority. But the same treaty also obligates the two sides to cooperate in fighting epidemics.

Unnamed Israeli health officials told Channel 12 Monday that ignoring the Palestinians would be unwise from an epidemiological standpoint. “We can’t have tens of thousands of unvaccinated people coming into Israeli territory,” the network quoted them as having said.

Tens of thousands of Palestinian workers from the West Bank enter Israel every day, though some limitations have been placed on their entry during national lockdowns.

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

Deputy Health Minister MK Yoav Kisch told Channel 12, “Israeli citizens come first. Only after we have finished vaccinating all residents of the country can we consider any other request, including ones from the PA.”

The health officials who spoke with the network agreed regarding the preferential order established by Kisch, but said that they would “definitely like to see the Palestinians vaccinated,” adding that failure to do so would also place the health of Israelis at risk.

Pressed on the same issue during a Monday interview with the British Sky News, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein insisted that the Palestinians “have to learn how to take care of themselves.”

“I don’t think that there’s anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would take a vaccine from the Israeli citizen, and, with all the goodwill, give it to our neighbors,” he said

Edelstein pointed out that Israel has been assisting the Palestinians, including via the transfer of medical equipment, since the early days of the pandemic.

The Rapid Response Team of the Preventive Medicine Department of the Palestinian Ministry of Health takes examination samples for Coronavirus at a health center in Rafah, a town in the southern Gaza Strip, on November 25, 2020. (Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“We do understand that it’s in Israeli interests that there be fewer cases on the Palestinian side,” he clarified. “Many of the Palestinians are working here in Israel. You can’t divide the two neatly and say, you know, ‘They can deal with it themselves; it’s not our issue.’ It is our issue.”

Asked if Israel would provide vaccines to Palestinians once its population is completely vaccinated, Edelstein responded, “We definitely will consider that but as I’ve said, I sincerely hope that by that time part of their population will be vaccinated by different vaccines that they are trying to purchase. If any other help will be needed, we will offer.”

In fact, PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila announced Monday that a deal has officially been struck between Russia and the PA to provide Moscow’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine to the Palestinians.

The Russian Direct Investment Fund said in a statement that the shipment of vaccines will arrive in the West Bank next month. Palestinian health officials had previously speculated that the Sputnik vaccines could arrive as early as the end of December, although those predictions proved unfounded.

Public health experts have been skeptical of the Russian vaccine, which they charge was produced and rolled out without sufficiently stringent testing mechanisms.

Over the weekend, Palestinian health officials announced that they had signed a deal with AstraZeneca and were anticipating the arrival of its first major vaccine shipment by the end of February.

“We’ve received a formal letter from the AstraZeneca pharmaceutical company that by February 15th, the vaccines will arrive in Palestine… between the middle and the end of the month,” Palestinian Authority Health Ministry spokesperson Kamal al-Shakhra told Voice of Palestine Radio on Saturday.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein (C) attend a ceremony for the arrival of a plane carrying a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech anti-coronavirus vaccine, at Ben Gurion airport near the Israeli city of Tel Aviv on January 10, 2021. (Motti MILLROD / POOL / AFP)

The PA, which has sought to import vaccines for Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza, has set several deadlines for the immunizations’ arrival, including by the end of last December. So far, every deadline has failed to be met.

Israel has already given first doses to over 1.7 million people out of a population of 9.29 million, by far the highest vaccination rate in the world. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to accelerate the inoculation drive to 170,000 doses a day in an attempt to end the coronavirus pandemic in Israel by the end of March.

On Saturday, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said Israel was neglecting its obligations to provide immunizations for the Palestinians “according to international law.”

“Israel is trying to absolve itself of its responsibilities as an occupying power, and throw the full responsibility onto the Palestinian government,” the PA Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“The search by the Palestinian leadership to secure the vaccines from various sources does not exempt Israel from its duties towards the Palestinian people in providing the vaccines,” the Foreign Ministry added.

However, on Sunday, the PA Foreign Ministry backtracked to clarify that Israel’s legal obligations to the welfare of the Palestinians did not constitute “an abdication in any way of the responsibilities of the State of Palestine towards the Palestinian people, including providing healthcare and COVID vaccinations.”

The majority of Israel’s vaccines have come from Pfizer, which the PA has acknowledged it would have trouble storing in the requisite sub-zero conditions.

Palestinian officials also fiercely denied media reports in the Israeli press last week that alleged a secret transfer of several thousand shots for “humanitarian purposes.”

Members of the Palestinian security forces enforce a lockdown following the spread of the coronavirus in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 18, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

“The Health Ministry did not receive any vaccines from Israel,” senior Palestinian Authority health official Osama al-Najjar told The Times of Israel at the time.

Ramallah is also depending on an internationally backed mechanism known as COVAX, which aims to provide free coronavirus vaccines for around 90 participating countries that would otherwise be unable to afford the shots. If everything goes according to plan, COVAX will provide enough doses to immunize around 20% of Palestinians.

But the COVAX vaccines are unlikely to reach Ramallah or Gaza City for quite some time. The World Health Organization, a key sponsor of COVAX, has yet to approve any vaccines for use in the program. The rollout will also be relatively slow. An initial tranche of vaccines — enough to inoculate 3% of the Palestinian population — will be sent to Ramallah for use by priority groups before more doses are gradually sent along.

The free immunizations are scheduled to begin to be allocated in February, while delivery could be as late as mid-year, according to the World Health Organization.

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