Israel rebuffs WHO vaccine request for Palestinian medics, amid outcry over disparity

Citing shortages, Israel declines informal plea to make jabs available for Palestinian frontline workers to avert health disaster during the month-long wait for vaccines

Israel has refused an informal request from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to immediately make Covid-19 vaccines available to Palestinian medical workers to avert a health disaster, citing shortages of the jabs for their own citizens.

The refusal comes amid growing criticism from rights groups of the massive discrepancy between the vaccine rollout in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza, given Israel’s legal obligations as an occupying power. The Israeli government has said it is not aware of any request either formal or informal about the subject.

Israel has broken global records for the speediness of its inoculation programme, which started on 20 December and up to Friday has seen 1.7 million Israelis – or over 18 percent of the total population – vaccinated.

While Israel has provided vaccines for Palestinians living in east Jerusalem, by contrast no citizen or medic has received jabs among the nearly 5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, where the battered and impoverished healthcare systems are struggling to cope with the soaring caseload.

Citing the Fourth Geneva Convention, rights groups including Amnesty have accused Israel of “institutionalised discrimination” and of ignoring its international obligations to immediately ensure Covid-19 vaccines are equally and fairly distributed to Palestinians living under occupation. Israel has denied it is discriminating against the Palestinians.

Gerald Rockenschaub, the head of the WHO’s mission to the Palestinians, told The Independent the UN body had requested that Israel help provide Covid-19 jabs to cover Palestininan health workers; nearly 8,000 Palestinian medics have reportedly been infected by the virus, impacting their coronavirus response.

He said that Israel had declined the request for now, citing issues with shortages for their own population.

After publication, the WHO clarified that this had taken place during “informal discussions with the Israeli Ministry of health about whether vaccine supplies could be allocated to vaccinate the Palestinian health workforce as an immediate priority target group.

The Israeli Ministry of health indicated they would explore this option but were currently not in a position to supply vaccines because of a shortage of vaccines in Israel.”

Health officials within the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority (PA) told The Independent they had lodged a similar request, asking Israel to sell them 10,000 jabs for their medics in order to avert a health disaster during the month-long wait for vaccines from the WHO’s Covax programme and vaccine companies.

“We have tried to explore whether an unusual batch of vaccines could be made available from the Israeli side in light of the substantial discrepancy [in inoculations],” Mr Rockenschaub told The Independent.

“We have a substantial number of health workers that are infected. It would make a big difference to have the 10,000 jabs to ensure that the healthcare system doesn’t collapse and can operate,” he added.

“The feedback is that [Israel] have shortages of their own and they can’t provide any until a later stage,” he said.

He added that it “should be in the interest of Israel” to put every effort into ensuring the Palestinian population is adequately vaccinated and that the discrepancy does not continue. In particular, he cited the daily movement of at least 140,000 Palestinian workers between the territories and Israel as one reason why the inoculation of the Palestinian population was an Israeli public health concern.

“Over 1.5 million Israelis have received their vaccines, while on the other side zero have, except for those Palestinians living in east Jerusalem,” he said.

“We see people dying from coronavirus every day on both sides. It is essential to ensure global solidarity and access to vaccines for everybody because no one is safe until everyone is protected.”

More than 146,000 Palestinians have been infected with the coronavirus and more than 1,550 have died. On 31 December, 15 Covid-related deaths were reported in Gaza, the highest daily death toll since the start of the pandemic, according to the WHO.

Meanwhile, there have been more than 470,000 cases recorded in Israel, with over 3,500 deaths.

Israel has received worldwide praise for the efficiency of its vaccination programme and is on track to becoming the first country to completely inoculate its population.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced on Thursday that with the latest procurement of Pfizer vaccines they would be able to inoculate all their citizens over the age of 16 by the end of March.

The Israelis have vehemently denied accusations of discrimination and Israeli officials have blamed the PA for not seeking cooperation with the Israeli government to procure and distribute the vaccines. The Israeli health ministry officials later denied they had received a request from the WHO for vaccines for Palestinians.

Israel’s health minister, Yuli Edelstein, reportedly said last week that while it was in their interest to ensure that the spread of the virus was halted among the Palestinians, Israel’s first responsibility was to its own citizens.

The country’s deputy health minister, Yoav Kisch, said on Thursday that they may consider offering any vaccine surplus to the PA at a later stage.

Israeli commentators, meanwhile, have argued that Israel has no obligation to vaccinate the Palestinians and have even dismissed media reports on the discrepancy as antisemitic attacks.

The Israelis cite the Oslo Accords, the interim peace agreements signed by the Israelis and Palestinians in the 1990s, as the reason why the Palestinians are responsible for their own health response. Under the agreement, the PA is required to maintain international vaccination standards and for both sides to exchange information and cooperate in combating epidemics.

But 18 Israeli, Palestinian and international health and human rights organisations penned a statement last month highlighting Israel’s legal and moral obligations.

The communique cites Article 56 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which provides that the occupier has the duty of ensuring “the adoption and application of the prophylactic and preventive measures necessary to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics”.

They said this duty for Israel includes providing support for the purchase and distribution of quality vaccines to the Palestinian population under its control.

Israel has occupied the Palestinian territories since 1967 and has imposed a crippling 13-year long blockade on Gaza, after the Hamas militant group violently seized control of the tiny strip that is home to nearly 2 million people.

In Gaza, the ravaged healthcare system is suffering from chronic shortages of electricity and all medicines because of those restrictions. Mr Rockenschaub, of the WHO, said the agency had provided an additional 50 intensive care unit beds but that the Gazans were struggling amid medical staff shortages and ancient oxygen supplies systems that urgently needed replacing.

Except for the Egypt-Gaza crossing, Israel controls all the borders – and consequently all imports – into the Palestinian territories. The Palestinians also lack sufficient refrigeration facilities to store the vaccines.

All of this means the Palestinian vaccine programme is inextricably tied to coordination with and assistance from the Israelis.

Mr Rockenschaub said that they were already in talks with the Israeli ministry of health and Cogat – the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, the Israeli military unit that deals with civilian needs in the West Bank and Gaza – to ensure the smooth delivery and distribution of vaccines when they do arrive.

Medical and rights groups have gone a step further, urging Israel to immediately ensure quality vaccines be provided to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation and control, saying failure to do so was part of systemic abuses.

“Israel’s responsibility stems from its prolonged occupation and control of almost all aspects of lives in the occupied Palestinian territories,” said Hadas Ziv, director of ethics and content at Physicians for Human Rights Israel.

“It cannot expect a weakened and impoverished PA to handle with its limited resources a public health crisis that challenges even developed countries. It is both a legal and a moral obligation.”

Amnesty International called the denial of vaccines to Palestinians “institutionalised discrimination”, saying the unfair distribution of vaccines could “hardly be a better illustration of how Israeli lives are valued above Palestinian ones”.

“It goes deeper than this,” Amnesty’s Middle East and north Africa deputy director, Saleh Higazi, told The Independent.

“This the structural denial of rights for the Palestinians. We want that structure to be dismantled,” he added.

Palestinian health officials told The Independent that the PA had verbally asked Israel to sell it 10,000 doses of vaccines to cover its frontline workers as it scrambled to get enough doses for the entire population.

The WHO-led Covax global initiative, to ensure eventual Covid-19 vaccines reach those in greatest need, will provide 2 million doses of vaccines free of charge to the PA to cover 20 percent of the Palestinian population.

Two PA health officials told The Independent they have confirmed the purchase of an additional 2 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, but the initial delivery of the first batch of any of these vaccines is not expected before the end of February, possibly even the beginning of March.

The officials said the PA needs an additional 2 million doses on top of this to ensure sufficient immunity, and added that they are still in negotiations with multiple companies.

“It is important to have coordination between Israel and Palestine. There are no proper borders, people move between the two, it is problematic,” said Ali Abed Rabbo, director-general of the Palestinian health ministry.

“The principle of vaccination and herd immunity is needed to stop this pandemic that requires all parts of the world to work together.”

This article was updated on January 10, 2021, to include responses from the WHO and the Israeli embassy in London.