Hundreds of people were vaccinated against the coronavirus Monday at a vaccination center set up by Israeli Emergency Responders, or Magen David Adom, at the Qalandiyah checkpoint to enable East Jerusalem residents who cannot enter Israel to get the shot.
But the line between who was eligible for the vaccine and who was not was at times blurred.
The center’s opening is part of a broad vaccination campaign MDA is conducting in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem in an effort to curb the worrisome rate of infection there. After months in which the ultra-Orthodox community suffered high infection rates and topped the charts in the capital, in recent days it is the east part of the city that has seen a sharp rise in new cases. On Monday, 31 percent of the coronavirus tests from the Arab neighborhoods were positive, while on Tuesday it was 27 percent. Of the 680 new cases in Jerusalem on Tuesday, 294 were from East Jerusalem. There are 86 COVID-19 patients from East Jerusalem in the city’s hospitals.
Moreover, the vaccination rate in East Jerusalem is significantly lower than in the western part of the city: Only 27 percent of East Jerusalem residents have gotten the first shot, as compared to 57 percent of the city generally, while only 12 percent have received the second dose, compared to 37 percent of the city generally.
The vaccination campaign is being organized by MDA, the health maintenance organizations (HMOs), the Home Front Command, the municipality and the Health Ministry. Each day MDA employees open a vaccination center in a different neighborhood and call on the public to get inoculated. The policy of the Health Ministry and MDA is that even those who cannot be vaccinated through the HMOs can get the vaccine; there are many East Jerusalemites who are not HMO members, either because the National Insurance Institute has stripped them of their rights (usually on the grounds that they have left Jerusalem for the West Bank), or because they are West Bank residents in the midst of a family reunification process, which can often take years to complete.
Medical sources say that Arab willingness to be vaccinated is increasing and the influence of fake news and many of the rumors is fading. Rumors about the risks posed by the vaccine – death, infertility, illnesses and various conspiracy theories – have been replaced by rumors that people who don’t get vaccinated won’t be allowed into Al-Aqsa Mosque or won’t be allowed to come to work. Some people are spreading the latter rumors to encourage vaccination.
“You won’t be allowed into Al-Aqsa,” Samih Abu Ramila, head of the coronavirus committee in Kafr Aqab, told an elderly woman in the post office at the Qalandiyah checkpoint, which Abu Ramila manages. “To younger people I say that they won’t let you go shopping; to older people I say they won’t be able to enter Al-Aqsa. To those who are afraid I say they are giving us a genuine vaccine, not like the one the Jews are getting, and to all the others I say ‘go quickly before the vaccines run out,’” he says, smiling.
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The Qalandiyah checkpoint between the West Bank and Jerusalem is a huge maze of concrete and security installations. The vaccination center is in two rooms on the margins of the compound. On the other side of the checkpoint and the separation barrier is the neighborhood of Kafr Aqab. The neighborhood, which was visited Monday by Mayor Moshe Leon for the first time, has 100,000 residents, around 70,000 of whom have Israeli identity cards. Only 17 percent of the population has gotten the first vaccine. The vaccination center was set up at the checkpoint so that Kafr Aqab residents could get the vaccine easily. Shortly after it opened there were dozens of men and women lined up.
“Now everyone wants to finish with the coronavirus; they want to go to work or travel abroad,” said Jamil Sandoka of the community administration. Fadi Dakidak, who manages MDA volunteers, has been working for weeks to encourage vaccination in East Jerusalem. “I’ve spoken to everyone I could – imams, sheikhs, mukhtars, school principals. I got to the Waqf [Muslim religious trust] at Al-Aqsa and last Friday, at the sermon at the mosque, they told people to get vaccinated.”
The problem is that while Kafr Aqab is indeed a neighborhood of Jerusalem, it is also a suburb of Ramallah and within the village and in its environs there are tens of thousands of people who aren’t eligible to get an Israeli vaccine. As the day advanced more and more people gathered at the compound who weren’t able to get the shot. For example, there were Palestinian teachers who work at schools in East Jerusalem but who themselves are residents of the West Bank; they came to the vaccination center at the invitation of their principals. The first group of teachers got the vaccine, but when the second group came, they were told that there was no approval from the Health Ministry to vaccinate them and they waited on the side for a long time.
“In the West Bank you can’t get the vaccine and we’re afraid they won’t let us into the schools without the vaccine,” said one teacher. In the end, only a hundred teachers were vaccinated of the 300 teachers who had arrived.
Sixty employees of the Allenby crossing, most of them residents of Jericho, also came at the recommendation of Israel Defense Forces officers, and they were also told to wait. Still others came with documents showing they were at various stages of the family reunification process. Most of them got the vaccine, but one woman who came with a document showing that she had just started the process was refused.