The least crowded coronavirus vaccination center in Israel might be in East Jerusalem’s Beit Hanina neighborhood. On Tuesday morning, the clinic began dispensing Covid-19 vaccines — but it was nearly empty, bereft of people waiting to be immunized.
Acknowledging that only a few had signed up for shots, clinic director Dr. Mazen Daana estimated that it would take at least a week before people began to show up.
“We’re trying to get the word out, but there are fears. In a week or two, however, it will be packed, don’t worry,” Daana said.
Not everyone saw it that way. “When we open a new center in West Jerusalem, we have a flood of people, but in East Jerusalem it takes much more time and persistence,” said Clalit Jerusalem director Ian Miskin.
Only 20 percent of Palestinian East Jerusalem residents over the age of 60 have been vaccinated, compared to about 75 percent of Jews over 60 in the city as a whole, according to a Home Front Command assessment published in the Haaretz daily Tuesday.
“I expected there to be hesitancy among East Jerusalem residents, but not to this extent. Not to the degree that the vast majority of people are not being vaccinated,” said Fouad Abu Hamid, who directs a Clalit clinic in Beit Safafa, an Arab neighborhood that is mostly in East Jerusalem.
East Jerusalem residents constitute around 38 percent of the capital’s population. They do not possess Israeli citizenship but are covered by any of Israel’s four health management organizations. The vast majority — around 70% — are registered in Clalit, Israel’s largest provider.
Daana estimated that the small center had the capacity to provide around 100 vaccinations a day or more, assuming people started showing up. Only one or two trickled in for vaccination appointments during the half-hour The Times of Israel stayed to watch, however.
“We’re not so optimistic. They’ve tried to make phone calls and get people to show up and be vaccinated, but there was little response. People are still scared,” said Sheikh Jarrah clinic director Dima Bitar, a member of Clalit’s Jerusalem coronavirus command center.
The Beit Hanina clinic was one of four new vaccination centers that Clalit opened in East Jerusalem on Tuesday — the others were in Sur Baher; near the Old City’s Damascus Gate; and in Musrara on the seam between East and West Jerusalem. Previously, a clinic in Sheikh Jarrah had been the only place to get the vaccine in East Jerusalem.
Everyone offers different explanations for the low demand for the shot, but most officials agree that unfounded rumors and conspiratorial thinking have taken hold among some East Jerusalem Palestinians. The phenomenon is far from unique to Palestinians; worries about the safety of the vaccine persist worldwide despite public health officials’ best attempts to allay them.
But many Arab areas across Israel have seen lower turnout rates, which health officials have attributed to fears they deem especially entrenched in the community.
“In general, East Jerusalem residents trust the Israeli health system. They work in and are treated in Israeli hospitals — it’s very different from the political or security issues. But this vaccine issue has reached a new level on social media,” Abu Hamid said.
Fear about the vaccine’s long-term effects can range from the mild to the extreme, according to Bitar.
“Many are telling one another conspiracy theories: they want to kill us, they want to sterilize us, this will distort our genetic sequences. I’ve been getting some very strange questions. I even have employees here, in this clinic, convincing one another not to get vaccinated,” she said.
In Sheikh Jarrah, which hosts the largest Clalit center in East Jerusalem, the number of Palestinians coming to be vaccinated is also low. Unlike the new Beit Hanina center, the clinic is bustling with activity. Over the past few days, around 6,600 vaccinations have been administered there, according to Clalit figures — the vast majority for Jews.
“Far more Jews are coming than Arabs. It’s hard to say for sure, and the number has been improving over the past two to three days. It was extremely low, but now it’s closer to maybe 20 percent,” said clinic director Bitar.
In principle, Bitar acknowledged, East Jerusalemites could be heading to one of West Jerusalem’s three main Clalit clinics. But she thought it was likely that the vast majority of East Jerusalemites who were getting vaccinated were doing so in the Sheikh Jarrah clinic.
The Israeli Health Ministry did not respond to a request for hard numbers on the number of vaccinations given in East Jerusalem clinics to Palestinian residents versus Jewish citizens. Bitar said some in Clalit believe the number to be as low as 3%.
“I believe the true figure is a little higher, but I can’t say for sure how much,” Bitar said.
Even if 20 percent, or 1,320, of those vaccinated in Sheikh Jarrah were Palestinian, that would still only account for 4.2% of the 32,000 doses administered by Clalit in Jerusalem as of January 4. Adding a few thousand for those who may have visited other clinics, the figure would still fall well short of 38%, the estimated percentage of Jerusalemites who are Palestinian.
A number of factors complicate the picture. The Arab population is younger than its Jewish counterpart and therefore less likely to be eligible for the vaccine, although East Jerusalem Palestinians are more likely to have preexisting conditions that make them eligible.
Tens of thousands of East Jerusalem Palestinians also live beyond the security barrier that snakes through the eastern half of the city, cutting off whole neighborhoods. Those who live on the other side must cross through the infamous Qalandiya checkpoint in order to be vaccinated.
Munir Zughayyer, an activist in Kafr Aqab — a neighborhood beyond the barrier — said that crossing the checkpoint to reach the main clinic in Sheikh Jarrah could take two to three hours, noting that the checkpoint occasionally shuts down for hours at a time with no warning. Most people, Zughayyer said, would take public transportation, adding to the costs and time of travel.
“Logistical factors do matter. Jerusalem is enormous. To direct all of these elderly people to Sheikh Jarrah, with many using public transportation and so on, has been something of a challenge,” Abu Hamid agreed.
Other officials rejected that possibility. “All they have to do is come,” declared Miskin.
But most officials — including Palestinians — repeatedly emphasized that they view the key problem as one of willingness, not merely one of access. Conspiratorial thinking about the virus, spread on social media, has penetrated deep into East Jerusalem.
Yaqoub Qaliq, a retired schoolteacher, said his neighbors in Beit Hanina were divided: “Some have already decided they don’t want the vaccine, but others are willing to get it.”
As he recuperated from the shot in a tent outside of the Sheikh Jarrah Clalit clinic, Qaliq said he had decided to get vaccinated when his son, a physician, insisted that it was important.
“My son is a lung specialist who works at Shaare Zedek [hospital], and he has been at the forefront of fighting coronavirus. He works in a coronavirus ward and tells us about the things he’s seen,” Qaliq said proudly. “I trust my son, and when he told me that the vaccine was safe, I believed him.”
Kareem, a resident of Beit Hanina, said he was not sure whether or not he wanted to be vaccinated.
“I’ve heard a lot about it, how it can attack your kidneys or your brain. Sure, they say it’s safe, but I don’t really believe it. How do they know what will happen a year from now?” he told The Times of Israel outside of Beit Hanina’s Baladi Mall.
Slowly, however, matters appear to be improving, health officials said. During The Times of Israel’s visit to the Sheikh Jarrah clinic on Tuesday, the sound of Arabic was almost plentiful as Hebrew, even though a clear majority of those being vaccinated were Jews.
As Bitar spoke with The Times of Israel, a young woman in a hijab entered the room to ask if she, too, could be vaccinated. She was a schoolteacher, she said, and really needed the shot. Without missing a beat, Bitar rattled off a series of questions before regretfully explaining that she had to turn her away for now because of her young age.
“But you see? Even that’s an improvement from a few days ago,” Bitar said. “At least some are coming now. People are waking up a little bit.”
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