The office of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz confirmed on Sunday that the Jewish state is to transfer 5,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine to Palestinians. The drug will be used to immunize frontline medical workers, the statement said, offering no further details.
Israel is the world leader in rolling out its Covid-19 vaccines, with over three million of its 9.3 million inhabitants already having received at least one dose. However, it had refused to cover the West Bank and Gaza – the territories internationally recognized as being under Israeli occupation – with the exception of Israel’s Arab citizens and Palestinians living in East Jerusalem.
Israel cited the Oslo Accords from the 90s, which give the Palestinian Authority oversight of public health, to argue that it has no obligation to protect Palestinians from Covid-19. The refusal was criticized bymedics and international organizations. Two weeks ago, UN human rights body OHCHR reiterated that, as an occupying power, Israel is obligated under the Geneva Conventions to maintain Palestinian health services, including “to combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics.”
The keystone document states that if necessary, Israel should involve third parties to provide relief, the UN said, adding that the Geneva Conventions have more power that Israel’s peace agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which is outlined in the Oslo Accords. Israel denies being an occupying power in the Palestinian territories.
Israel controls many aspects of life in the West Bank, the territory under the Palestinian Authority, and together with Egypt it maintains a decade-old blockade of the Gaza Strip, where the Hamas movement is in charge. It means all international supplies to both places depend on Israel’s goodwill.
The Palestinian Authority said it hoped to receive Covid-19 vaccines through the international program COVAX, which aims to balance access by supplying poorer nations. It has also negotiated to receive Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, though the first shipment of 5,000 doses is expected only in mid-February, after “technical issues” postponed the delivery from the initial scheduled date of January 14. The UN warned that, due to the current situation, vaccines ordered by the Palestinian Authority “may not be delivered en masse to the West Bank and Gaza for many weeks.”
UN figures put the number of Covid-19 cases in Palestinian territories it designates as occupied, including in East Jerusalem, at over 176,000, with almost 2,000 deaths linked to the virus.