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Israel ‘declined WHO request’ to provide Covid-19 vaccine for Palestinian medics

Israeli authorities accused of 'racial discrimination' for refusing to provide Palestinians with jabs
An Israeli senior citizen receives his second Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in the northern coastal city of Haifa on 11 January 2021 (AFP)

An official at the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Monday that Israeli authorities rebuffed a request by the UN agency to help supply vaccines for Palestinian health workers, citing shortages.

According to a report by the Independent newspaper, Gerald Rockenschaub, head of the WHO’s mission to the Palestinian territory, said his organisation had requested Israel help to provide the crucial jabs. Nearly 8,000 Palestinian medics have reportedly contracted the virus, dealing a blow to their coronavirus response.

He explained that Israel had declined the request, citing shortages for its own population.

'The search by the Palestinian leadership to secure the vaccines from various sources doesn't exempt Israel from its responsibilities towards the Palestinian people in providing the vaccines'

- Palestinian foreign ministry

Palestinian Authority officials have also lodged a similar request to Israel, asking it to sell them the 10,000 jabs urgently needed for their medics to avert a health disaster while they wait for vaccines from the WHO and pharmaceutical companies.

On Monday, the Palestinian health ministry approved the main Russian vaccine against Covid-19, known as Sputnik V, for use in Palestinian self-ruled territory.

The first shipment of the shot is expected to arrive next month, with all deliveries expected in the first quarter of this year, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), which is responsible for marketing the vaccine abroad.

However, the Palestinian foreign ministry has said that Israel had been "ignoring its duties as an occupation power and committing racial discrimination against the Palestinian people, depriving them of their right to healthcare".

"The search by the Palestinian leadership to secure the vaccines from various sources doesn't exempt Israel from its responsibilities towards the Palestinian people in providing the vaccines," it said in a statement on Sunday.

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While Israel has already become the world leader in vaccinations per capita, Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the besieged Gaza Strip have yet to secure their first supplies.

As of Monday, the WHO had recorded a total of over 165,250 cases in the occupied Palestinian territories, including 1,735 deaths.

Meanwhile, Israel's health minister told Sky News on Monday that the Palestinians “have to learn how to take care of themselves".

"I think that we've been helping our Palestinian neighbours from the very early stages of this crisis, including medical equipment, including medicine, including advice, including supplies," Yuli Edelstein said.

"I don't think that there's anyone in this country, whatever his or her views might be, that can imagine that I would be taking a vaccine from the Israeli citizen and, with all the goodwill, give it to our neighbours."

Calls to protect Palestinian prisoners

Israel has been criticised by human rights organisations for shirking its responsibilities as an occupying power - as defined under international law - by failing to deliver vaccines to the five million Palestinians living in the occupied territories, and also ignoring the risks to the lives of Palestinian prisoners.

Five Israeli rights groups submitted a petition on Sunday to Israel’s Supreme Court against Israeli Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana’s decision not to vaccinate Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, contrary to directives by the health ministry. 

According to the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), there are 4,400 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, held in poor conditions which increase their vulnerability to the pandemic. 

The PLO has called on Israel as an occupying power to carry out its obligation in providing safety measures to guarantee Palestinian prisoners' health during this pandemic and ensure their vaccination. 

"It is essential to highlight that Palestinian prisoners must not be discriminated against and must access all elements of the right to health, including access to proper healthcare, including vaccines," the PLO said in a statement on Monday.

"It is unacceptable that Israeli prison guards and criminal prisoners who occupy the same space as Palestinian prisoners are immunised, while Palestinian prisoners are denied their right to be vaccinated."