Covid-19 vaccine rolled out in Israel, as Palestinians are forced to wait

As Israel begins to administer Covid-19 vaccines to their citizens, Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have been left without access to the inoculations, with many warning it could be months before they can secure enough doses.

“It will be many months before we receive a quantity of vaccines sufficient to vaccinate people en masse,” Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh of the Palestinian Authority (PA), which has limited self-rule in the West Bank, said on Thursday.

Palestinian leaders and international activists were quick to point out Israel is obligated to ensure that Palestinians are vaccinated as quickly as possible.

“Israel bears moral and humanitarian responsibility for vaccinating the Palestinian population under its control,” said Physicians for Human Rights in an appeal to Israeli leaders Wednesday.

Palestinian leaders have cast a wide net in their search, contacting international organisations, drugmakers like Moderna and AstraZeneca and states like Russia and China that are producing their own vaccines.

But the cash-strapped Palestinian government has yet to finalise any private supply agreements – a contrast from neighbouring Israel, which has secured millions of doses from drugmakers and is developing its own vaccine.

Israel began their vaccination drive on Saturday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein first to get the highly anticipated jab.

Israel reached an agreement with Pfizer to supply eight million doses of its newly approved vaccine – enough to cover almost half of Israel’s population of nearly nine million since each person requires two doses.

The first vaccine doses arrived in Israel a week ago, with the government aiming to administer 60,000 jabs per day.

The massive vaccination campaign, said to be the biggest in Israel’s history and titled “Give a Shoulder”, will not include millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control despite a recent spike in cases and deaths stemming from the virus.

Meanwhile, Jewish settlers living in the illegally occupied West Bank are eligible for the jab.

The Palestinians need not just financial assistance, but logistical help as well in obtaining a Covid-19 vaccine. The Pfizer serum, for example, must be shipped and stored at minus-94 degrees, a cold chain effectively unavailable in Gaza, where electricity is available only eight hours a day.

“We just do not have the technical capabilities for that,” said Ali Abd Rabbo, director of the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza. “We have held sessions with the Israeli side in this regard, but until this moment there is no agreement.”

The PA expects to receive 20 percent of its needs from the World Health Organisation’s vaccine scheme for poor and middle income countries. The rest will come from PA- or donor-funded vaccine purchases, the PA reported

PA Health Minister Mai Alkaila estimated that the PA could receive an initial vaccine shipment by March. She did not say from whom.

New coronavirus cases have spiked in recent weeks in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, which Israel keeps under a blockade citing threats from the coastal enclave’s Islamist rulers Hamas.

Health officials warned last week that they could no longer carry out coronavirus tests in the Gaza Strip because of a lack of kits amid a spike in cases in the besieged Palestinian territory. 

They have also stressed the healthcare system is on the brink of collapse due to the ongoing and inhumane siege of the enclave.