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WHO raises ‘concerns’ about vaccine inequity between Israel and Palestinians

UN body says it has held talks with Israel about sending doses to Palestinians

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)
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)

The World Health Organization has raised “concerns” about the unequal distribution of coronavirus vaccines in Israel, which has given shots to more than 20 percent of its population, and the Palestinian territories, an official said Monday.

While vaccinating its own Arab citizens and Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem, Israel says it is not responsible for inoculating the Palestinians. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Israel will consider helping, once it takes care of its own citizens.

Under the terms of the 1995 Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, while both sides are to work together to combat epidemics.

Rights groups say Israel has the responsibility, as an occupying power, to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

The Palestinian Authority has accused Israel of “racism” for not sharing its vaccines, but it has made no formal request to Israel and says it is procuring its own supplies through a WHO program and agreements with private companies and Russia.

Officials in Ramallah have set several deadlines for the vaccines’ arrival, only to see them fall through.

The dispute reflects global inequality in access to vaccines, as wealthy countries get the lion’s share of doses, leaving poorer countries even further behind in combating the public health and economic effects of the pandemic. It has also emerged as another flashpoint in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, even as the virus has wreaked havoc on both sides.

“We’ve raised a number of public health concerns and equity concerns about this unequal distribution of vaccines or unequal access to vaccines,” Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the WHO office for the Palestinian territories, told The Associated Press.

“We have discussions with the Israelis on a number of levels, also from higher levels of our organization, trying to explore the option, whether Israel could consider to allocate vaccines” to the Palestinians, he said, adding that the “primary target” would be front-line health workers.

Israel boasts one of the earliest and most successful vaccination campaigns in the world, with over 2 million doses administered since late December in a population of more than 9 million.

Israel captured east Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza in the 1967 Six Day War, territories the Palestinians want for their future state. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, and two years later, the Hamas terrorist group violently wrested power in the Strip from the Palestinian Authority.

The Palestinian Authority administers parts of the West Bank and helps coordinate health care in Gaza.

Edelstein said last week that Israel had been “closely cooperating” with the Palestinian Authority since the beginning of the crisis and might consider sharing vaccines at some point.

“But we do have to understand that our first and foremost responsibility is to vaccinate the citizens of the state of Israel,” he told the AP.

An education worker receives a COVID-19 vaccine injection, at a Clalit clinic in Jerusalem, January 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli and international rights groups say Israel is required to provide vaccines under international law related to military occupation. Critics point to the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers in the West Bank are eligible for the vaccine because they are Israeli citizens, while the 2.5 million Palestinians living in the territory are not.

“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” Omar Shakir of Human Rights Watch said in a statement. “Everyone in the same territory should have equitable access to the vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity.”

The Palestinian Authority hopes to get its first doses in the coming weeks through a WHO program known as COVAX, which aims to procure vaccines for needy countries but has been slow to get off the ground. Rockenschaub said the Palestinians would receive their first doses from the program as early as the beginning of February “under ideal circumstances.”

Palestinian health officials have also announced deals to procure doses from British pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca and from Russia for its Sputnik V vaccine.

The Palestinian Authority’s reluctance to publicly ask Israel for help could reflect concerns that doing so would open it up to allegations from Israel and others that it was unable to provide for its own people or that it is not ready for statehood.

Rockenschaub declined to weigh in on the political dispute, but said that, from a public health standpoint, Israel has an interest in the Palestinians being vaccinated.

“It will be very difficult to ensure full protection of the Israeli population while not ensuring also that adequate vaccinations are done on the Palestinian side,” he said, pointing to the estimated 140,000 Palestinians who regularly cross into Israel for work.

He added that it is important to ensure that Palestinian medical workers are adequately protected “so that their health system doesn’t collapse.”

Israel acknowledged last week that it had given 100 doses of vaccine to the Palestinian Authority as a “humanitarian gesture.” A follow-up shipment of 100 vaccines is expected by January 25 to provide those immunized with a second dose.

In response to the reports, Palestinian officials denied having received any doses from Israel, both in generic statements by government institutions and by individual officials reached by The Times of Israel.

But according to the state attorney, Palestinian Authority officials requested coronavirus vaccines from the Israeli Health Ministry and from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, Israel’s military liaison to the Palestinians, in early January.

The Palestinian Authority had reportedly requested far more inoculations — as many as 10,000 doses — to immunize frontline health care workers.

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