Israel has received accolades for overseeing the world’s fastest vaccination campaign, but Palestinians living under its occupation have been brazenly abandoned to fend for themselves.

Palestinians wait to receive doses of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine provided by Israel's Magen David Adom medical services at Qalandia checkpoint on the crossing between occupied West Bank city of Ramallah and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, on February 23, 2021.
Palestinians wait to receive doses of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine provided by Israel's Magen David Adom medical services at Qalandia checkpoint on the crossing between occupied West Bank city of Ramallah and Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, on February 23, 2021. (AFP)

Israel has administered at least one Covid-19 vaccine shot to 50 percent of its 9.29 million population, while 35 percent have received the full two-dose course.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein's Friday count includes East Jerusalem Palestinians, who have been included in the vaccine campaign that began on December 19, as part of the 9.3 million population. Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza are not part of the Israeli campaign.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aims to vaccinate all Israelis over the age of 16 by the end of March, when he is up for re-election. He says that would allow for a post-pandemic reopening of the country in April.

Vaccine diplomacy

After determining that Israel has “more than enough” vaccines for its own population, Netanyahu said he personally decided to share what he called a symbolic number of doses with some of Israel’s allies.

His comments came at a time when Israel faces international criticism for not doing more to share its vast stockpile of vaccines with the Palestinians.

He said it was done “in return for things we have already received, through many contacts in various areas that I will not detail here,” Netanyahu said. “I think it absolutely buys goodwill.”

However, the country later halted its plan to distribute surplus vaccines as authorities examine whether it was in Netanyahu's authority to order the move, the justice ministry said on Thursday.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz claimed that while the decision to give vaccines to the Palestinian Authority followed "due process" and was in Israel's medical interests, "supplying vaccines to other countries was never broached in relevant forums."

Centrist Gantz said the policy was pushed through without the required consultation and was, therefore, "against the law." The issue must first be discussed by the security cabinet, he added.

The comments came at a time when Israel faces international criticism for not doing more to share its vast stockpile of vaccines with the Palestinians.

“As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for the health of all the people under its control,” tweeted US Sen Bernie Sanders. “It is outrageous that Netanyahu would use spare vaccines to reward his foreign allies while so many Palestinians in the occupied territories are still waiting.”

In a bid to achieve its ambitious vaccination target, Israel reportedly paid Pfizer 40 percent more per dose than did the US or any country in the European Union. It will trade medical data about the drive to Pfizer in return for a consistent supply of doses. Both moves were criticised for potentially crossing ethical and privacy boundaries.

Israeli public broadcaster Kan said a total of roughly 100,000 Moderna vaccines was to be shipped to some 15 allies.

The Czech Republic, which plans to open a diplomatic office in Jerusalem next month, said on Tuesday it had received 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the Jewish state.

The list included Honduras, Guatemala, Hungary and Uganda, countries that have recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or expressed interest in opening diplomatic offices there following the Trump administration’s move of the US Embassy to the city in 2018.

Chad, which established diplomatic ties with Israel in 2019, Mauritania, which is believed to be on the cusp of restoring relations, and several other African countries that have close security ties with Israel, including Ethiopia and Kenya, also appeared on the list.

Israel even promised to buy tens of thousands of doses on behalf of the Syrian government, a longtime foe, in exchange for the return of an Israeli civilian detained in Syria.

Asked about Netanyahu using their vaccines as a diplomatic tool, Moderna declined to comment.

READ MORE: The Israeli apartheid epidemic

Palestinians left out

Over 4.4 million Palestinians live in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Israel has delivered just 2,000 Moderna doses to the internationally recognised Palestinian Authority to inoculate West Bank medical workers.

The Palestinians on their own have struggled to procure vaccines. 

The Palestinian Authority received 10,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, while a rival of President Mahmoud Abbas this week delivered an additional 20,000 Sputnik vaccines to the Hamas-ruled Gaza after arranging delivery from the United Arab Emirates.

Together, these vaccines will cover just a tiny fraction of the millions of Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority has said it expects to receive more vaccines through the World Health Organization’s Covax program and other deals, but it remains unclear when the medicines will arrive.

Wasel Abu Yusuf, a senior Palestinian official, accused Netanyahu of playing politics with a humanitarian issue.

“He is using the vaccines needed by some countries to get political support for his policies, like moving embassies to Jerusalem,” he said.

”The amounts of vaccines he is talking about giving to Palestinians in the West Bank is very small.”

According to the Geneva Conventions, Israel has a responsibility as an occupying power to ensure the medical supplies of the occupied population, including “adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventative measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics” to “the fullest extent of the means available to it.”

READ MORE: Palestinians left deprived as Israel signs more vaccine deals

This map of occupied West Bank shows the division of territories under control of Israelis and Palestinians.
This map of occupied West Bank shows the division of territories under control of Israelis and Palestinians. (TRTWorld)

Palestinians in East Jerusalem

Israel has vaccinated its own Arab population and Palestinians in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem who possess Israeli residency cards but live beyond the security barrier that cuts across the eastern half of the city.

The vaccinations were carried out by Magen David Adom paramedics at the key Qalandiya crossing, arguing that it can increase accessibility to the vaccine to those who live beyond the barrier.

“East Jerusalem Palestinians can come and be vaccinated, as well as those who have Palestinian Authority identity cards and work permits,” the spokesperson said.

East Jerusalem is claimed by Israel and was annexed in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War. 

Palestinians want the capital to be East Jerusalem, and international law and most countries regard settlements that Israel has built there as illegal.

West Bank and Gaza

Israeli public health experts have called on the government to share the vaccines, given the widespread contact between Israelis and Palestinians. Tens of thousands of Palestinian labourers work inside Israel or its West Bank settlements.

Israel has now inoculated more than 4.65 million people. Of the overall figure, about 3.27 million people (35.19 percent of the population) have received the second dose of the vaccine.

Only several thousand doses are available in the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, scarcely scratching the surface of needs. At a generous maximum, assuming that the 35,000 reported Sputnik and Moderna vaccines are all available, that would be around 0.8 percent of the Palestinian population.

A few kilometres away in Israel, all the vulnerable groups have been vaccinated and they are planning to move on to vaccinating healthy adults and youths, who are less vulnerable, especially to severe complications. In start comparison, in the West Bank, there are around 10,000 doses, which is enough for 5,000 people to be vaccinated. 

In the hospital in occupied West Bank, where this Medecins Sans Frontieres doctor works, staff have been offered the vaccine, but the available doses do not come close to covering the healthcare workers, let alone the elderly and people with medical conditions that make them susceptible to dying of Covid-19.

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Achieving herd immunity

The Biden administration has refrained from criticising Israel choosing only to express support for sharing vaccines with the Palestinians. “We believe it’s important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to Covid vaccine in the weeks ahead,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said.

“It’s important for Israel, Israel’s health and security as well."

Aside from the legal, and moral, obligations, there are many pragmatic reasons Israel would want to vaccinate Palestinians quickly. Israel is less likely to reach herd immunity if Palestinians are delayed in being vaccinated. There are nearly 500,000 Israeli settlers living among Palestinians in the West Bank. 

More than 100,000 Palestinians enter Israel every day to work, primarily in construction, most continuing to do so even during the pandemic.

In short, Israel's herd immunity goal and aim to declare itself as a Covid-19-free nation will only be achieved through the Palestinian vaccination. 

There is no realistic way to disconnect the two populations, and Covid-19 does not account for citizenship or legal status.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies