Israel plans COVID jabs for Palestinian labourers and settlement workers

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel approved plans on Sunday to offer COVID-19 vaccines to Palestinians with Israeli work permits, a step a rights group said did not go far enough to safeguard Palestinians in occupied territory.

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The Palestinians have received relatively few doses to date and lag far behind Israel, which has vaccinated over one third of its population in one of the world’s fastest roll-outs.

After facing criticism for not extending its campaign to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, Israel agreed this month to give Palestinian health officials 5,000 Moderna Inc doses. It has since handed over 2,000 of them.

In a much larger commitment, COGAT, a branch of Israel’s defence ministry, said on Sunday it would offer Moderna vaccines to the roughly 130,000 Palestinians who work in Israel or its West Bank settlements.

The program will begin within days, COGAT said.

Thousands of Palestinians who work in the Israeli service and industrial sectors had already been vaccinated privately by their employers inside Israel, said Shaher Saad, secretary-general of the Palestinian Workers’ Union.

He said that under the new Israeli programme, Palestinian medical teams would administer shots at West Bank military checkpoints.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek the territories for a future state.

Israel counts East Jerusalem Palestinians as part of its population and has offered them vaccines. But it argues that under the Oslo peace accords, the Palestinian Authority (PA) is responsible for vaccination in Gaza and parts of the West Bank where it has limited self-rule.

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, said that Israel was bound by international law to vaccinate Palestinians living under its effective control.

“Vaccinating only those Palestinians who come in contact with Israelis reinforces that, to Israeli authorities, Palestinian life only matters to the extent it affects Jewish life,” Shakir said.

COGAT said the vaccinations were being offered “as part of the efforts (to) fight the spread of COVID-19” and “in order to maintain public health and the functioning of the economy”.

Speaking to reporters last week before the plan was announced, Israeli coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said that “from a medical perspective, we think vaccinating the Palestinian workers is very much the correct thing to do.”

The West Bank and Gaza, home to a combined 5.2 million Palestinians, have received around 32,000 vaccines doses to date - comprising small donations from Israel, Russia and the United Arab Emirates. They expect more doses from Russia and drugmaker AstraZeneca within weeks.

The PA shut down most schools in the West Bank on Sunday to try to stop a sharp rise in coronavirus variant infections. Intensive care units for COVID-19 patients have reached 95% occupancy in the territory, officials said.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Susan Fenton and Philippa Fletcher