Israeli Health Officials To Government: Vaccinate All Palestinians

Mar 1, 2021
Originally published on March 24, 2021 10:11 am

JERUSALEM - Israeli health officials have urged their country's leaders to help vaccinate the entire Palestinian population against COVID-19, citing a public health imperative, an outgoing senior health official told NPR Monday.

"This is really important, to vaccinate the entire Palestinian Authority population, and I believe it will go this way," said Itamar Grotto, who helped lead Israel's pandemic response and stepped down Monday as deputy director general of Israel's Health Ministry. "This is the recommendation of all the experts, and I believe that the politicians will follow our recommendations."

On Sunday, Israel said it would vaccinate about 110,000 Palestinian day laborers who work in Israel. In recent days, Israel has also vaccinated special categories of Palestinians, such as relatives of people who live in Jerusalem. Israel also vaccinated Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

"We are starting to give them more and more vaccines," Grotto said. "It is an important objective, from a public health point of view, and of course also from a humanitarian point of view."

He said Israel is giving Palestinians unused supplies of the Moderna vaccine, more of which is expected to arrive in Israel. Israelis are being immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Israel has faced calls from international and Israeli aid groups and rights advocates to help facilitate vaccines for Palestinians in occupied territory, arguing Israel is obligated to do so by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israeli political leaders say the Oslo Peace Accords make the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority responsible for its own population.

Israel has already vaccinated half of its population, including Palestinian citizens and residents (of Israel). But in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of Palestinians have not yet been vaccinated.

Palestinians have received small donations of vaccines from the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Israel. Palestinian officials ordered larger quantities of vaccines but they say manufacturers are delaying shipments. The Biden administration has urged Israel to help.

"We believe it's important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccine in the weeks ahead," State Department spokesman Ned Price said. "We believe it's important for their own – for their own needs. It's important for Israel, Israel's health and security as well."

Palestinian officials have also faced accusations of improperly distributing donated vaccines intended for health workers, to politicians and their friends. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly was secretly vaccinated. In a press conference Monday, the Palestinian anti-corruption civil society organization AMAN called on the Palestinian Authority to form a committee to investigate "corrupt" vaccine distribution.

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Israel is expanding COVID-19 vaccinations for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. There's been a spike in infections there, and the Biden administration has asked Israel to help. Here's NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting from the West Bank.


DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: At a military checkpoint, Israeli medics vaccinate hundreds of Palestinians but only special categories of people, like relatives of Jerusalem residents. Other Palestinians are turned away. Najib Amer was lucky to get the shot through connections with work.

NAJIB AMER: No, I'm not feeling good, actually, because my part of my family - they should have this vaccine. But unfortunately, I can't provide to them.

ESTRIN: Israel leads the world in per-capita vaccinations. Half of its population has already received one shot of the vaccine. But in the West Bank, only a few thousand Palestinians have gotten vaccinated, with doses donated by Russia and Israel. Palestinian officials ordered shipments of vaccines, but they've been delayed by suppliers. Israel has faced international calls to help, including a request from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. And it's doing so gradually.

ITAMAR GROTTO: We are starting give them more and more vaccines. This is important objective from a public health point of view.

ESTRIN: Outgoing deputy director general of Israel's health ministry, Itamar Grotto, says he's urged Israeli leaders to help vaccinate all Palestinians. For now, Israel has agreed to vaccinate all Palestinian laborers who enter Israel every day. He expects Israel to vaccinate even more Palestinians in the future. But right now in the West Bank, there's a new lockdown because hospitalizations and infections are at record highs.

ALAA MURRAR: If there were vaccines, sure, we will not need to go to hospital and what happened with my sister and her son.

ESTRIN: Alaa Murrar's sister was sick with COVID-19 last week and gave birth at a West Bank hospital. The COVID ward was overburdened. The mother felt she didn't get proper care. And the baby boy died.

MURRAR: Nothing will help us without vaccine here in Palestine.

ESTRIN: Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the West Bank. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.