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Israeli minister orders jails not to vaccinate Palestinian security prisoners

Order defies health ministry guidelines that prisoners should be part of second group of Israelis to be vaccinated
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana's statement did not single out Palestinian inmates, but there are no non-Palestinian security prisoners in Israel (AFP)

Israel's Public Security Minister Amir Ohana told the country's prison service late last week not to inoculate Palestinian security prisoners, an Israeli newspaper has revealed.

The order came despite health ministry guidelines that prisoners should be part of the second group of Israelis to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 coronavirus, together with security personnel, Haaretz wrote on Sunday.

The report came as Israel began its third coronavirus lockdown at 5pm (15:00 GMT) on Sunday, with most people forced to stay within 1,000 metres of their home. 

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The office of the minister said that only prison staff should be vaccinated because "there should be no inoculating security prisoners without approval and in line with vaccination progress among the general population," the newspaper said.

Although the statement referred only to "security prisoners," a letter on the matter sent by Moshe Edri, the Public Security Ministry's director general, did not make such a distinction, instead referring to the general prisoner population, Haaretz said.

Although Ohana's statement did not single out Palestinian inmates, there are no non-Palestinian security prisoners in Israel.

The ministry's directive contradicts the health ministry's guidelines regarding the prioritisation of vaccination. 

Haaretz said it was unclear on what authority Ohana can order the prisons service to vaccinate certain inmates and not others.

'Politically motivated directive'

In response to the Public Security Ministry's directive, Shas lawmaker Moshe Arbel posed a parliamentary question to Ohana asking him to explain why there is no need to inoculate all inmates in light of the crowding and harsh conditions in Israel's prisons and the positive pace of vaccination among the general population.

"The state should weigh in on the difficult situation of the prisoners, among the most crowded and vulnerable groups in the country, and act to vaccinate them as soon as possible," Arbel wrote.

Criticising Ohana's announcement, Physicians for Human Rights said: "Minister Ohana's politically motivated directive indicates once again why the responsibility for prisoner health should be moved from the Public Security Ministry and the Israel Prisons Service to a body whose first priority is health. 

"The minister's directive contradicts the vaccination guidelines that the Health Ministry issued. 

"We should be making sure that prisoners are given high priority for vaccinations in line with recommendations by health experts involved in the matter, especially in light of worldwide data showing that the risk of infection among inmates is higher than that of the outside population."

Palestinians left waiting 

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received a Covid-19 vaccine jab, starting a national rollout.

However, 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.

Israel's vaccination campaign will include Jewish settlers who are Israeli citizens living deep inside the occupied West Bank, but not the territory's 2.5 million Palestinians.

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They will have to wait for the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank in accordance with interim peace agreements reached in the 1990s, to provide them.

The PA hopes to get vaccines through a World Health Organisation-led partnership with humanitarian organisations known as Covax, which has so far fallen short of the 2 billion doses it hopes to buy over the next years for those in poor countries.

Complicating matters is the fact that the Palestinians have only one refrigeration unit capable of storing the Pfizer vaccine. 

The Palestinian Authority has reported more than 85,000 cases in the West Bank, including more than 800 deaths, and the outbreak has intensified in recent weeks.

The situation is even more dire in Gaza, home to two million Palestinians and which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power in 2007. Authorities there have reported over 30,000 cases, including more than 200 deaths.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.