WASHINGTON – The United States believes it’s important for Palestinians to gain greater access to COVID-19 vaccines, a State Department official told Haaretz on Monday.
“We welcome reports of Israel’s provision of vaccines for Palestinian health care workers in the West Bank,” the official said, adding that “we believe it’s important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccines in the weeks ahead.”
The comments come as the Biden administration has called for reengagement with the Palestinians following years of deteriorated ties, as well as growing Israeli whispers surrounding the lack of contact between U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the former’s inauguration last month.
The State Department’s praise for the thousands of vaccines sent to health care workers, combined with the expressed desire for Palestinians to have more vaccine access, echoes the calls of several Democratic lawmakers and rights groups, who argue that Israel is obligated as an occupying power to vaccinate the Palestinians.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a first-term congressman from New York, sent a letter to Israel’s acting consul general in New York, Israel Nitzan, questioning why Israeli settlers in the West Bank were receiving vaccines while Palestinians were not. “I was heartened to read that the Israeli government has recently agreed to transfer 5,000 doses of the vaccine to Palestinians to immunize front-line medical workers, but the entire population in the West Bank and Gaza must also be covered,” Bowman wrote last week.
Bowman also stated that he hoped Israel would “build on your government’s proven success and expertise in distributing the vaccine by expanding access to all people living within Israel’s borders and in the occupied territories.”
Israel denies having such a responsibility, stating that its priority is its own citizens – including actively providing vaccinations to its Arab citizens and Palestinians living in annexed East Jerusalem. The Palestinian Authority is responsible for providing health care in the territories it administers according to the Oslo Accords, but the interim agreements stipulate both sides should cooperate in combating epidemics.
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Despite an extensive vaccination campaign, coronavirus cases in Israel remain high and show little sign of decreasing. Israel has just exited its third nationwide lockdown, halted inbound and outbound flights, and closed down its overland border crossings. As of Tuesday morning, 5,192 Israelis have died of the virus.
The PA administered its first-known vaccinations last week after receiving the first of 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, earmarked for medical workers. The Palestinians hope to acquire tens of thousands more doses in the coming weeks through a World Health Organization program. Most other Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are still awaiting vaccines, though it may take at least a few more months for their campaigns to reach enough members of the population. So far, 1,543 people have died in the West Bank, while 529 have died in Gaza.