Israel, which has faced criticism for excluding Palestinians from its vaccination campaign, started to inoculate Palestinians working in the country and in settlments in the occupied West Bank, more than two months after launching an immunisation blitz of its own population.
Palestinian labourers who crossed into Israel at several occupied West Bank checkpoints received their first doses of the Moderna vaccine on Monday. Some 100,000 Palestinian labourers from the West Bank work in Israel and its settlements, which are considered illegal under international law.
Israel has administered more than 8.7 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to its population of 9.3 million. More than 3.7 million Israelis – more than 40 percent – have received two doses of the vaccine.
But until Monday, Israel had provided few vaccines for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip, a move that has underscored global disparities and drawn international criticism.
Human rights groups and many Palestinians say that as an occupying power, Israel is responsible for providing vaccines to the Palestinians. Israel says that under interim peace accords reached in the 1990s, it does not have any such obligation.
Israeli officials have said the government’s priority is vaccinating its own population first, while the Palestinian Authority (PA) has said it would obtain its own vaccines through a World Health Organization (WHO) partnership with humanitarian organisations known as COVAX.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had also announced that he intended to share surplus vaccines with far-flung allies in Africa, Europe and Latin America, but the decision was frozen by a legal challenge before the plan was fully implemented.
Coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza
The PA has received 2,000 doses from Israel and acquired thousands more doses of a Russian-made vaccine. The United Arab Emirates has also donated some 20,000 doses.
With around 32,000 vaccine doses in hand by the end of February, the Palestinians launched limited vaccination programmes in the West Bank and Gaza this month, beginning with health workers. The West Bank and Gaza are home to 5.2 million Palestinians.
More than 140,000 Palestinians in the West Bank have been infected since the beginning of the pandemic, 1,579 of whom have died, out of a population of 2.8 million, according to official figures.
The governor of Ramallah on Saturday declared “a strict one-week lockdown… over a spike in daily coronavirus infections and hospitalisations.”
Nablus went into lockdown last week, while Tulkarm governorate, in the northern West Bank, enters lockdown on Tuesday.
Major General Kamil Abu Rukun, head of COGAT, Israel’s military agency coordinating government operations in the occupied West Bank, said in a statement that Israelis and Palestinians “live in the same epidemiological space” and that it was a shared interest to vaccinate Palestinians.