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Vaccination drive for Palestinian workers delayed amid reported budget dispute

After 700 inoculated as part of widely publicized pilot, program to vaccinate some 120,000 employees in Israel in limbo as Treasury looks for funding source

A Palestinian worker gets vaccinated by Israeli Magen David Adom staff at the Sha'ar Efraim checkpoint in the West Bank, March 4, 2021 (COGAT)
A Palestinian worker gets vaccinated by Israeli Magen David Adom staff at the Sha'ar Efraim checkpoint in the West Bank, March 4, 2021 (COGAT)

The coronavirus vaccination drive for some 120,000 Palestinians working in Israel and the settlements has been put on hold, the military liaison to the Palestinians announced Friday.

The initiative was supposed to officially begin on Sunday after a successful pilot program on Thursday saw 700 Palestinians vaccinated at the Sha’ar Efraim checkpoint between the West Bank and Israel, according to the Health Ministry.

However, on Friday, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said the plan was being put on hold  “due to administrative delays, which are supposed to be solved in the near future.”

But the Haaretz daily reported that the freeze was due to a budgetary dispute. Organizers of the initiative had been ready to move forward on Sunday, understanding that they would receive the necessary funds from an external budget designated for pandemic-related issues, which was slated to be approved by the cabinet in the coming days.

But Finance Minister Israel Katz decided unilaterally on Friday that the funds would have to come from a different source, Haaretz said, saying organizers of the vaccination drive were not given a reason.

Finance Ministry officials told The Times of Israel that a decision would be taken next week on the source of the budgeting for the project.

Finance Minister Israel Katz at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Medical Center on December 20, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The full vaccination program for some 120,000 Palestinians who are legally employed in Israel and in West Bank settlements was supposed to start Sunday, at Sha’ar Efraim and seven other checkpoints, as well as four settlement industrial zones.

The government approved the plan last Sunday.

Around 87,000 Palestinians hold work permits in Israel, and an additional 35,000 work in Israeli settlements, according to Defense Ministry figures.

Palestinian workers will be eligible to receive the shots by appointment and with the presentation of a valid employment permit.

Under the original plan, the administration of the first doses of the two-shot vaccine would be done within two weeks, COGAT said, with the centers later opening for an additional two weeks to give the second dose.

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

While Israel has surged ahead in vaccinating its population — over half of all Israelis have received at least one dose of a coronavirus shot — only scattered shipments of vaccines have reached the Palestinians so far. The Palestinian Authority expects to begin its public vaccination campaign in early March with the arrival of a major shipment of AstraZeneca vaccines.

Israel 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 technically “disputed.” Israeli officials have also pointed to bilateral agreements between Israel and the Palestinians that designate responsibility for healthcare to the Palestinian Authority.

But current and former health officials have also repeatedly said that helping Palestinians get vaccines — especially Palestinians who work in Israel — is a public health priority for the Jewish state, as they regularly mix with Israelis.

“The message is very simple: We are one epidemiological unit. As much as we can, we have to help them address this matter,” former Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov told The Times of Israel recently.

A woman takes a self-photograph after receiving a coronavirus vaccine shot from an Israeli medical team at the Qalandia checkpoint, on Feb. 23, 2021 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Amid public pressure and calls for greater transparency, the Palestinian Authority acknowledged Tuesday that some of the few COVID-19 vaccines in its possession did not go to healthcare workers, but rather to government officials, the Jordanian royal court and the Palestinian national soccer team.

The announcement sparked outrage among Palestinians, who are currently seeing a major surge in coronavirus cases in the West Bank.

Since the beginning of February, the number of active cases in the West Bank has more than tripled to some 13,000. Around 24 percent of coronavirus tests came back positive across the West Bank over the previous day, the PA said on Wednesday.

In response to the stark rise in cases, the PA has enacted a partial lockdown in the West Bank, closing schools and banning travel.

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