Bennett Approves Transfer of Over 1 Million COVID Vaccines to Palestinians

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A woman administering a coronavirus vaccine in Bethlehem in February.
A woman administering a coronavirus vaccine in Bethlehem in February.Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters

Israel will give the Palestinian Authority about one million doses of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine in the coming days, the Prime Minister's Office announced on Friday.

The first 100,000 doses were transferred to the Palestinian Health Ministry in the West Bank on Friday, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said.

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The inoculations were set to expire in any case, and the agreement stipulates that a later shipment from Pfizer to the Palestinian Authority will be redirected to Israel in exchange, the joint statement from Prime Minister's Office, Health Ministry and Defense Ministry said. 

The statement refers to an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Pfizer, which would see a large shipment arrive in the Palestinian territories in the first quarter of next year. The shipment from Israel will therefore serve as an advance on those vaccines, which will instead be sent to Israel.

Most of the vaccines in question are due to expire in approximately six weeks, and the joint statement from the Prime Minister's Office and the ministries also emphasized that the decision was undertaken as Israel's current vaccination needs are met.

The deal comes after a decision by new Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz on Thursday.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz spoke on Friday with his Palestinian counterpart Mai al-Kaila. "The coronavirus knows no borders," Horowitz said. "This important step is in the interest of all parties. I hope that it will set in motion a collaboration between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors in other areas as well," he added.

Al-Kalia thanked Horowitz for the step and said that "the coordination with Israel around the coronavirus works well."

"I hope that the relationship between [Israel and the Palestinian authority] will grow stronger," she added.

Kila later confirmed that the Palestinian Authority would receive one million Pfizer vaccines over the next few days and will begin vaccinating according to international regulations.

Pfizer will return the same amount of Israel at a later stage. The PA hopes that with these vaccines, it will be able to vaccinate 70 percent of the population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Kila said that with the vaccines transferred from Israel, the PA could inoculate 80,000 people a day in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinians in the West Bank receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, earlier this monthCredit: Hazem Bader/AFP

The decision to send the vaccines was made in principle by the previous government, but the details had not been finalized. Israeli sources involved in the process said that under the old government’s plan, the PA would have had to pay for the vaccines, but the price would be set by the Health Ministry and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry has been working in recent weeks to authorize a policy of "vaccine diplomacy." This comes on the heels of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's attempts to gift vaccines to sympathetic countries. A senior political source told Haaretz that "it is inconceivable that hundreds of thousands of vaccines that are about to expire will be discarded due to legal disputes," and described the superfluous vaccines as "an asset" to advance the state's interests.

Palestinian vaccine wait continues 

Although Palestinians sources claim the vaccines will be given to people in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, political sources said that according to agreement the inoculations will be limited to West Bank residents and the PA agreed to its terms.

According to the Palestinian Health Ministry, 436,275 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have received at least one dose of vaccine, including around 260,000 who have received both doses. This includes around 100,000 Palestinians employed in Israel, who have been vaccinated by Israel over the past few months.

The inoculations administered so far have been concentrated in the West Bank, with only 52,000 Gazans receiving one or more jabs of the vaccine. The ministry said that Gaza received another 226,000 doses of vaccine this week, but Gazans have been reluctant to get vaccinated.

Senior Palestinian officials who met recently with representatives of international organizations had told them the PA was discussing a vaccine shipment with Israel, which currently has millions of doses and can spare 1.2 million for the Palestinians.

On Monday, the High Court of Justice heard a petition by six human rights organizations demanding that Israel provide vaccines for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The petitioners were Physicians for Human Rights, Gisha, HaMoked - Center for the Defense of the Individual, Adalah - the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, the Palestinian group Al Mezan and Rabbis for Human Rights.

The state wanted the petition rejected out of hand, on the grounds that Israel isn’t responsible for health care in the territories. But Supreme Court president Esther Hayut, as well as justices Isaac Amit and Daphne Barak-Erez, didn’t grant that request. Instead, they ordered the state to update it on any further developments within four months.

Much of the hearing was held confidentially, with only the government’s attorneys present. Adi Lustigman, the lawyer representing the petitioners, said the classified portion of the discussion probably dealt with the size of Israel’s vaccine surplus, its negotiations with the PA on the issue and the number of vaccines earmarked for the Palestinian Authority.

The petitioners charged that the shipment approved on Thursday was insufficient.

“This shipment is too little, too late,” Ghada Majadle of PHR said. “Instead of accepting responsibility and supplying vaccines without delay to the entire population, Israel is conducting horse-trading over the lives and health of millions of people.”

“Israel has a moral and legal obligation under international law to ensure the health of residents of the territories under its control,” she continued. “The fact that to date, Israel has provided only a handful of vaccines is a mark of shame and an embarrassing shunning of responsibility.”

Beyond the humanitarian dimension to the transfer, health professionals have long emphasized that this is in the clear interest of public health in Israel. In any case, the deal is a sort of bridging loan which will see Israel receive vaccines at a later date. Israel also has outstanding vaccines set to arrive from Moderna and Pfizer, and these agreements also cover mutations.

The number of coronavirus cases has fallen in the West Bank, though the number of tests has also dropped, by about 50 percent compared to previous months. As of Thursday, 15 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in the West Bank, nine of them seriously ill, and 2,300 tests had been conducted over the past 24 hours. Another 65 patients were hospitalized in Gaza, 38 of them seriously ill.

In Israel, up to 5.15 million people have received two jabs of the vaccination, with a further 450,000 inoculated with one dose, amounting to 55 percent of the population. There also 800,000 more people who recovered from coronavirus, raising the total percentage of Israelis who are immune to coronavirus to 63 percent.

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