Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial plan to ship surplus coronavirus vaccines to a group of allied nations was frozen on Thursday following a legal challenge to the deal, his office announced.
It was the latest twist in a saga that has raised questions at home about Netanyahu’s decision-making authority, as well as his move to help far-flung nations in Africa and Latin America at a time when the neighbouring occupied Palestinian territories are struggling to secure their own vaccine supplies.
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The plan has also illustrated how at a time of global shortages, the vaccine has become an asset that can be used for diplomatic gain.
Netanyahu announced on Wednesday that he had personally decided to share small quantities of surplus Israeli vaccines with allied nations. He did not identify the countries, but Israeli media reported that Israel would send shipments to 19 countries with close or growing ties with Israel.
“I welcome the decision to freeze the transfer of vaccines to other countries,” Defence Minister Benny Gantz said on Twitter. Gantz is serving in Netanyahu’s government while preparing to face off against him in an election next month.
Israel has had one of the world’s fastest roll-outs of COVID-19 vaccines, with nearly half the population already having received one dose.
But centrist former General Gantz said a decision to give away vaccines must be made in the “proper forums” and it was not up to Netanyahu to take such action on his own.
Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called Netanyahu’s overseas vaccine shipments “political blackmail and an immoral act”, accusing Israel of “exploitation of the humanitarian needs of these countries”.
Israel has so far given 2,000 doses to the Palestinian Authority, arguing that they are responsible for their own healthcare system. The West Bank and Gaza are home to 5.2 million Palestinians.
Palestinians have accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including the Palestinians in its inoculation programme.
Israeli officials have said that under the Oslo peace accords, the PA health ministry is responsible for vaccinating people in Gaza and parts of the West Bank where it has limited self-rule.
With approximately 32,000 vaccine doses in hand to date, the Palestinians launched limited vaccination programmes in the West Bank and Gaza this month, beginning with health workers.
While the PA expects to receive an initial COVAX shipment within weeks, the programme is at risk of failing, mainly due to a lack of funds.
The Palestinian territories have one of the lowest testing rates in the Middle East and North Africa, the World Bank said in a report this week. The positivity rate in the West Bank is more than 21 percent, and in Gaza 29 percent, indicating an uncontrolled spread of the pandemic, the World Bank said.
Two close allies of Israel have already confirmed they received shipments, before the programme was suspended.
Honduras received 5,000 vaccine doses from Israel on Thursday. A video clip of their arrival was tweeted by President Juan Orlando Hernandez with the message “Take heart, Honduras!”
The country has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Jerusalem, bolstering Israel’s claims to the city that it regards as its capital but infuriating the Palestinians, who claim the eastern half of the city as the capital of a future state.
On Tuesday, Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said his country had received several thousand doses.
The Czech Republic is one of Israel’s strongest supporters in the European Union.
Although the Czech Republic supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was last month named in an International Criminal Court pre-trial decision as one of the countries supporting Israel’s argument that the court had no jurisdiction over war crimes in the Palestinian territories.