West Bank enters 3rd wave with surging infections, no mass vaccination in sight

PA health minister recommends another two-week lockdown as 1,307 Palestinians test positive for virus in 24 hours

A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask sits outside a closed shop in the West Bank town of Beit Sahur, near Bethlehem amid a tightened lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic on February 24, 2021. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)
A Palestinian man wearing a protective mask sits outside a closed shop in the West Bank town of Beit Sahur, near Bethlehem amid a tightened lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic on February 24, 2021. (Photo by HAZEM BADER / AFP)

West Bank Palestinians are seeing a dramatic rise in coronavirus infections that amounts to a third coronavirus wave in the area, Palestinian Authority health officials said on Wednesday.

“We are seeing a third wave in Palestine. Unfortunately, we’re seeing a substantial rise in the number of those infected, as well as the entry of new coronavirus variants,” Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila told the Al-Arabiya broadcaster on Wednesday night.

After weeks of relative stability, coronavirus cases are surging in the West Bank. Nearly 2,000 infections were recorded on Monday, with 1,307 infected by Wednesday at noon.

The number of severe and critical patients has also spiked, al-Kaila said in a statement on Wednesday. Around 48% of Palestinian ventilators are currently in use — the highest since the beginning of the pandemic, she said.

“We’ve recommended that the government institute a two-week lockdown,” al-Kaila said.

The Gaza Strip, by contrast, has improved dramatically in recent days. While the coastal enclave was seeing hundreds of daily cases in December and January, it only recorded 84 new cases over the past 24 hours. The Strip has hesitantly begun to return to normal life, with schools and popular markets reopening.

Palestinian health workers at a hospital in the West Bank town of Nablus, where health workers were vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) earlier today, after the delivery of vaccine doses from Israel. February 3, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

As the number of West Bank cases has crept up, however, the number of tests coming back positive has also risen from 10 percent to 20-30%, al-Kaila told al-Arabiya. The high positivity rate indicates that the virus could be spreading even more widely, undetected.

According to the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry, 177,768 Palestinians have been infected with the novel coronavirus — 123,049 in the West Bank and 54,719 in Gaza. The last wave of infections peaked in mid-December before slowly declining.

“The epidemiological curve over the past two weeks was stable and there was a decrease in cases…but now the number of positive tests has jumped to 25%,” Palestinian health official Osama al-Najjar told Palestinian Radio 4 on Tuesday.

Al-Najjar speculated that the sudden leap in cases was due to the spread of the so-called British and South African coronavirus variants among Palestinians.

Despite the rise in infections, a mass vaccination campaign among West Bank Palestinians could be still months away.

“Definitely months. It all depends on when we get the vaccines. From now until the end of the year, we hope that we will have gotten enough vaccines to immunize 60-70% of our citizens,” Health Ministry Director-General Ali Abd Rabbo said in a phone call with The Times of Israel last week.

Palestinians expect to receive 37,000 Pfizer vaccines from COVAX, the UN-organized fund, by the end of the month. They also hope to receive as many as 400,000 AstraZenaca vaccines from COVAX in the coming weeks, although no definite date has yet been set for their arrival.

Palestinians sit as PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh opens a hospital for COVID-19 patients in the West Bank city of Nablus, on January 16, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/ Flash90)

Abd Rabbo said that the Palestinians had also independently signed a deal for two million doses of the AstraZenaca vaccine, which would hopefully arrive in the next few months.

“These delays are not just in Palestine. There was a debate in Europe recently, where European countries condemned AstraZenaca for its delay. This is an international problem,” Abd Rabbo said.

While Israel has surged forward in immunizing its population, only a few thousand Palestinians have yet been vaccinated. Around 12,000 vaccines — mostly Russian Sputnik V doses — arrived in Ramallah in early February. Around 20,000 Russian vaccines sent by the United Arab Emirates also arrived in the Gaza Strip last week.

PA officials had said they anticipated a vaccine shipment by mid-February that would enable them to start immunizing the public in the West Bank and Gaza. But PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said last week that the plans had hit a snag.

“There has been a delay in the arrival of the vaccine,” Shtayyeh told the Palestinian Authority cabinet last week, without elaborating.

Israel also pledged to send 5,000 vaccine doses to Palestinians in the West Bank, 2,000 of which have been delivered and are being distributed. The PA is still waiting on the other 3,000 and there has been no word on when they will arrive.

The sharp difference between the Israel and Palestinian immunization campaigns has sparked a fierce debate over whether Israel is obligated to provide vaccines to the West Bank and Gaza. Human rights groups have charged that Palestinians live under Israeli military occupation, making Israel obligated for their well-being under international law.

International pressure on Israel has increased in recent days, particularly after it was revealed Israel is sending vaccines to other nations in exchange for diplomatic support.

Palestinian doctors treat patients at the emergency room of the al-Quds Hospital in Gaza City, September 7, 2020. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Israel denies that it occupies the Palestinians and argues that bilateral agreements between the two sides designate the PA as ultimately responsible for immunizing its people.

But Palestinian officials have also given contradictory answers over whether or not they think Israel is obligated to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told the United Nations Security Council in January that Israel “has not provided any vaccine to the Palestinian people under occupation to this day, denying its obligation to do so.”

Asked by Al-Arabiya on Wednesday night whether Israel was obligated to provide health care for the Palestinians during the pandemic, al-Kaila split the difference.

“As an occupying power, Israel is obligated under the Fourth Geneva Convention…but we consider ourselves to be an independent state and want to depend on ourselves,” al-Kaila said.

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