Israel excludes Palestinians from COVID-19 vaccine rollout

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As Israel rolls out an impressive inoculation drive against COVID-19, having injected more than 10% of its population within two weeks’ time, Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza can only watch and wait.

Human rights groups said bypassing the Palestinian population “does not absolve Israel from its ultimate responsibility toward Palestinians under occupation”.

The disparities could potentially see Israelis return to some form of normality within the first three months of this year, while Palestinians remain trapped by the virus.

Israel transports batches of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine deep inside the West Bank. But they are only distributed to Jewish settlers, and not the roughly 2.7 million Palestinians living around them who may have to wait for weeks or months.

“I don’t know how, but there must be a way to make us a priority, too?” said Mahmoud Kilani, a 31-year-old sports coach from the Palestinian city of Nablus.

“Who cares about us? I don’t think anybody is stuck on that question.”

Two weeks into its vaccination campaign, Israel is administering more than 150,000 doses a day, amounting to initial jabs for more than 1 million of its 9 million citizens.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told Israelis that the country could be the first to emerge from the pandemic.

As well as a highly advanced healthcare system, part of the reason for the speed could be economics. A health ministry official said the country had paid US$62 a dose, compared with the US$19.50 the US is paying.

Meanwhile, the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, which maintains limited self-rule in the territories, is rushing to get vaccines. One official suggested, perhaps optimistically, that shots could arrive within the next two weeks.

However, when asked for a timeframe, Ali Abed Rabbo, director-general of the Palestinian health ministry, estimated the first vaccines would probably arrive in February.

Those would be through a World Health Organization-led partnership called Covax, aimed at helping poorer countries, which has pledged to vaccinate 20% of Palestinians.

Yet vaccines intended for Covax have not yet gained “emergency use” approval by the WHO, a precondition for distribution to begin.

Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of office at WHO Jerusalem, said it could be “early to mid-2021” before vaccines on the Covax scheme were available for distribution in the Palestinian territories.

The rest of the doses are expected to come through deals with pharmaceutical companies, but none have apparently been signed so far.

Despite the delay, the authority has not officially asked for help from Israel. Coordination between the two sides halted last year after the Palestinian president cut off security ties for several months.

Israeli officials have suggested they might provide surplus vaccines to Palestinians and claim they are not responsible for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, pointing to 1990s-era interim agreements that required the authority to observe international vaccination standards.

Heba Abu Asr, 35, a resident of Gaza, jolted when asked how she felt about others getting the vaccine first. “Are you seriously trying to compare us with Israel or any other country?” she asked. “We can’t find work, food, or drink. We are under threat all the time. We do not even have any necessities for life.” (Source: The Guardian)

 

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