Fake News, Conspiracies Hinder Israel's COVID Vaccination Drive for East Jerusalem Palestinians

Coronavirus vaccination levels for Israel's Arabs have been comparatively low, but East Jerusalem levels are even lower – leaving room for Jewish non-residents to receive inoculations in their place

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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People standing in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, December 4, 2020.
People standing in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, December 4, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

Only about 20 percent of Palestinian East Jerusalem residents aged 60 and older have received the coronavirus vaccine, compared to about 75 percent the entire city's Jewish population from the same age group, the military's Home Front Command said Tuesday.

Ayman Seif, who leads the Health Ministry’s coronavirus response for the Arab community, said that compared to the rest of Arab population, the vaccination efforts in East Jerusalem have been the least promising.

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“We’re making an effort in two directions – to increase the number of vaccination stations and do a lot of public awareness campaigns,” he said. “We’re helped by medical teams to encourage people to spread the news and get vaccinated.”

As a result of this low turnout, hundreds of Jews who do not live in East Jerusalem are heading to the site for inoculations each day. An official in the Clalit Health Services health maintenance organization said the vaccination station in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood vaccinated 900 of its members in just one day last week, with only 150 of them being East Jerusalem residents.

Seif and other HMO officials in Jerusalem said that Israel's COVID-19 vaccination campaign is meeting resistance due to conspiracy theories and fake news cropping up on Arabic-language social media, among other reasons.

“The main reason is fake news. They’re telling us that they want to wait and see what happens to the people who get inoculated,” said Fuad Abu Hamad, the director of the Clalit Health Services branch in Beit Safafa. “The rumors that two people died after receiving the vaccination didn’t help.”

Another problem is that the vaccines are being administered in the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah rather than in their local neighborhoods. If they were given out more locally, there would be more demand, Abu Hamad said.

“We’re telling people that medical staff have been vaccinated, and that if they trust us, they should get vaccinated, too. They agree, and then when we tell them that they need to drive to Sheikh Jarrah, they tell us that it’s too far away, and that they’ll get vaccinated when it’s here in the neighborhood,” Abu Hamad said.

Conspiracy theories that the “vaccine is not healthy or not safe are running around,” said the head of the East Jerusalem region of the Leumit Health Care Services HMO, Avi Asayag. “There are people who believe the vaccine will kill them within three years or will change their DNA. These things have taken hold in the Arab community. In recent days it has eased up a bit, and I hope we will succeed.”

He added, however, that younger Palestnian residents of East Jerusalem want to be vaccinated, but the HMO is currently turning them away. Out of about 900 members of Leumit in East Jerusalem, only a few dozen have been vaccinated, according to Asayag.

“They aren’t coming, I don’t even know how to explain it. We call them one by one and try to convince them, but they aren’t coming,” said Oded Vigartzin, the head of the Jerusalem district of the Meuhedet HMO.

Another official involved in the effort to encourage the Arab population to get vaccinated said that "responses range between ‘it’s placebo’ and ‘it’s dangerous,’" he said. "I think there was such a stage in the Jewish community, but there they crossed the Rubicon and moved from suspicion to a dash for the vaccines. It hasn't happened yet in the Arab community.”

In an attempt to raise the rate of vaccinations in East Jerusalem, Leumit is planning to place two mobile vaccination stations in the Arab neighborhoods of Beit Hanina and Beit Safafa. The municipality has also decided to open a call center that will work to encourage older East Jerusalem residents to get vaccinated.

In addition, videos featuring doctors, school principals and other well-known figures have been posted on Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon's Facebook page in Arabic as part of the effort to increase the vaccination rate among the community.

On Monday, Leon said that the gap between vaccination rates in East Jerusalem and the western parts of the city will be reduced soon. “There is a lot of fake news on social media, but I took the neighborhood leaders and they got vaccinated,” Leon said.

"We are sending text messages to people and are acting through the community administrations and social workers to explain the importance of the vaccine. I have no doubt that we are about to see a major improvement,” Leon said.

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