JERUSALEM – Israel, which has faced criticism from human rights groups for not extending its world-leading vaccination program to Palestinian territories under its control, agreed Friday to inoculate 100,000 Palestinians who regularly cross into Israel to work, according to the Palestinian Minister of Health.
The vaccinations, which will occur at ad hoc centers set up along the line dividing Israel from the West Bank, she said, would mark the largest delivery of the protectant serum to the five million Palestinians living there and the Gaza Strip. Authorities there are largely depending on vaccines yet to be distributed by an internationally-funded effort targeting poor countries, as well independent purchases they are making on the open market.
To date, Palestinians have gotten access to about 10,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik vaccine donated by Moscow, 2,000 of which of arrived in Gaza this week. Israel also sent 5,000 doses in early February to inject health workers.
Being able to reach 100,000 workers would mark a significant boost in the Palestinian program, according to Palestinian Heath Minister Mai al-Kaila.
“We welcome this,” al-Kaila said Saturday. “We need to vaccinate our people so we can end the pandemic everywhere.”
The agreement followed a rare meeting between Israeli and Palestinian officials Friday in Ramallah, the West Bank seat of the governing Palestinian Authority. Senior health officials from both sides, including Israel’s coronavirus “czar,” Nachman Ash, discussed efforts to control the outbreak that has killed more than 1,900 in the territories.
Israel’s Ministry of Health has not officially announced the provision of vaccines and officials did not respond to requests for comment Saturday, the Jewish sabbath. But the ministry had indicated earlier in the week its intention to offer doses to Palestinian workers, thousands of whom cross checkpoints every day to work in construction, service and other jobs in Israel.
In a statement, the ministry said Friday’s meeting occurred in the understanding “that Israel and the Palestinians live in one area and that an outbreak of COVID-19 among the Palestinian Authority may also affect the infection rate among Israeli residents.”
Israel has depended on the Pfizer vaccine, which requires ultracold storage, to inoculate more than 40% of its residents. But it also took shipment of a reported 120,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine in January. It was unclear what vaccines would go to the Palestinians and how quickly the shots could begin.
“We agreed on the principle but we don’t know the details yet,” al-Kaila said.
The agreement would represent a reversal of Israel’s reluctance to offer vaccine in mass quantities to the Palestinians. The government has faced months of criticism for that stance, even as it has mounted a fast-paced campaign to inoculate its own population.
Some officials, including the Israeli health minister, said they would be willing to aid the Palestinians but only after their own citizens had gotten the jab.
Human Rights advocates argue that Israel has a moral and legal obligation to vaccinate a population under its effective control. Israel countered that the 30-year-old Oslo accords places responsibility for health care with the Palestinian’s own elected leaders, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the militant Hamas group in Gaza.
The issue grew heated this week when Palestinians accused Israel of pollical interference Tuesday when it turned back a shipment of the Russian-donated vaccine meant for Gaza at a military checkpoint. That incident occurred amid calls from some right-wing Israeli politicians to condition the delivery on the release of hostages and human remains held by Hamas.
Israeli officials said the request to send the vaccine across the checkpoints required time for an official review. The vaccines was allowed to reach in Gaza two days later.
“To me, health should be beyond politics,” al-Kaila said. “We and the Israelis, the Lebanese, the Syrians, the Egyptians, we are all in the same region. We should reach herd immunity together.”