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Rivlin calls for vaccination of prisoners: Ban is ‘inconsistent with our values’

President’s statement comes amid Public Security Minister Ohana continued refusal to inoculate inmates

Prison guards wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, seen as they transport a prisoner suspected of having the coronavirus at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
Prison guards wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, seen as they transport a prisoner suspected of having the coronavirus at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday came out against Public Security Minister Amir Ohana’s order not to vaccinate prisoners, saying it was inconsistent with the values of the State of Israel and of Judaism.

“Preventing life-saving medical treatment from people in prison — whether due to a sentence imposed on them by the court or due to detention prior to sentencing — is inconsistent with our values, the values ​​of the state, Judaism, and democracy.” Rivlin declared.

Supporting the Health Ministry’s position, Rivlin requested that Health Minister Yuli Edelstein ensure “the matter be resolved as soon as possible,” declaring its importance “in order to maintain the health of the prisoners and the Prison Service staff.”

Last month, Ohana instructed prison officials to refrain from vaccinating inmates against COVID-19 until further notice, after a Palestinian official said that security prisoners were expected to soon begin getting shots. Ohana’s ban included not only security prisoners, but all inmates.

President Reuven Rivlin getting vaccinated against the coronavirus at the Hadassah Ein Kerem Medical Center in Jerusalem, December 20, 2020. (Mark Neyman/GPO)

The public security minister called for vaccinations to be given only to prison guards, not inmates, until a larger number of non-incarcerated Israelis were inoculated.

That decision contradicted the orders of the Health Ministry which now instructs that everyone 55 and over — up from 60-plus — including prisoners, receive the injection. A number of vaccinations were specifically set aside for that purpose. The Health Ministry is tasked with setting national policy on who should be vaccinated.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday called on Ohana to reverse the order, voicing his concerns in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “A public security minister who has lost it and a prime minister who gave up and and let this farce continue — that’s the only way to explain not vaccinating prisoners over the age of 60. This is a move that is illegal, politically motivated and life-threatening.”

Additionally, the attorney general’s office told Ohana that the order was given “without authority” — as only the Health Ministry was permitted to decide who should be vaccinated — “and thus cannot stand.”

Amir Ohana at a Public Security Ministry changeover ceremony in Jerusalem on May 18, 2020. Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In response to the public security minister’s order, five human rights groups petitioned the High Court of Justice on Sunday to overturn the decision.

The petition, filed on behalf of ACRI, Physicians for Human Rights – Israel, Adalah, HaMoked and Rabbis for Human Rights, demanded that the Israel Prisons Service “vaccinate the entire prisoner population according to the vaccination priority set by the Health Ministry, with an emphasis on prisoners aged 60 and over and those in a high-risk group,” the organizations said in a joint statement.

“According to professional sources, prisoners are an at-risk population and action must be taken to vaccinate them in parallel with the at-risk populations at large,” the petition stated. The petition also demanded that the prison service “prevent prioritizing the vaccination of prison staff over the prisoners.”

Prison guards wearing protective clothing as a preventive measure against the coronavirus, seen as they transport a prisoner suspected of having the coronavirus at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on March 30, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

The petition was accompanied by a medical opinion from the Association of Public Health Physicians from the Israeli Medical Association that said: “Prisoners must be treated as a captive population. In the context of COVID-19, this is considered an at-risk population, both due to preexisting health issues and to the overcrowded conditions that increase the risk of infection and mortality.”

According to the medical association, “the State of Israel has an ethical obligation to offer the vaccines to the prisoner population.”

Israel is currently pushing ahead with its vaccination campaign and began to administer second doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine to the public on Sunday, three weeks after it began its national inoculation drive.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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