Israel to start vaccinating prisoners, including Palestinians

Announcement by prison authorities comes as Israel faces renewed calls to provide vaccinations for millions of Palestinians in occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

People gather to draw attention to circumstances Palestinian prisoners face in Israeli jails, in front of the headquarters of International Committee of the Red Cross in Nablus, West Bank on April 16,
People gather to draw attention to circumstances Palestinian prisoners face in Israeli jails, in front of the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Nablus, occupied West Bank [File: Nedal Eshtayah/Getty Images]

The Israel Prison Service has said it will begin vaccinating all imprisoned people against COVID-19, including Palestinians, following calls from rights groups, Palestinian officials and Israel’s attorney general.

Israel has given at least one vaccine dose to more than two million of its citizens, becoming the world leader in vaccinations per capita. But apart from the prisoners, Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip have yet to secure their first supplies.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said Palestinian prisoners would be the last to get inoculated in the campaign to vaccinate all jailed persons.

Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit wrote to Ohana condemning the comment as “tainted with illegality”, according to Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper.

Israeli and global rights groups, including Amnesty International, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization have also issued public calls for Israel to vaccinate the estimated 4,400 Palestinians held in its jails.

According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, about 250 Palestinians in Israeli prisons have tested positive for coronavirus.

‘Equitable access’

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced last week that the first vaccine doses would be distributed to prisons over the coming days.

The prison service issued a statement on Sunday saying, “following the vaccination of staff … the vaccination of detainees will begin in prisons in accordance with medical and operational protocol established by the Prison Service.”

Local news outlet Maan quoted the Israeli prison service announcement as saying that the vaccines would be available to “all prisoners”, and “without distinction”.

It added that those who refuse to receive the jabs would need to sign a voluntary waiver form.

Reacting to the announcement, a spokesman for Hamas, the group that governs the Gaza Strip, said Israel “had an obligation to provide vaccines to prisoners”.

Earlier on Sunday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) also called on Israel to provide vaccinations for the 2.8 million Palestinians in the West Bank and the two million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.

Omar Shakir, HRW’s director for Israel and Palestine, particularly criticised the practice of vaccinating Jewish settlers in illegal settlements in the West Bank, but not the Palestinians.

“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” Shakir said.

“Everyone in the same territory should have equitable access to the vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity,” he added.

Last week, the Palestinian foreign ministry said in a statement Israel had been “ignoring its duties as an occupation power and committing racial discrimination against the Palestinian people, depriving them of their right to healthcare”.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has said it has signed contracts with four vaccine providers, including the makers of Russia’s Sputnik V.

Supplies would also come through a World Health Organization vaccine programme for poor and middle-income countries.

The PA said it expects to have sufficient doses to vaccinate 70 percent of the Palestinian population, in both the West Bank and Gaza, with doses expected by mid-March.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies