Israel vaccinates Palestinian workers as West Bank grapples with Covid-19 crisis

More than 50,000 have received a dose, compared with approximately 5,000 vaccinations administered by Palestinian authorities

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Posing for selfies as they received their first coronavirus shot, Palestinians joined a scheme this week to vaccinate West Bank residents with Israeli work permits, while their community faces a surge in infections.

“It was nothing, I didn’t feel it. The doctor was excellent,” said Mohammed Rabayah, 34, a construction worker from Bethlehem.

Resting in a white tent after receiving a dose of the Moderna vaccine, he was one of more than 50,000 Palestinians with Israeli work permits to have had the jab so far.

More than 115,000 Palestinians are eligible to receive the vaccine at centres set up by Israeli authorities at checkpoints and settlements in the occupied West Bank.

At a Bethlehem checkpoint, Palestinians, some in their paint-covered workwear, waited at a gate, while heavily armed soldiers checked their paperwork before allowing them to enter.

After showing their work permits and green ID cards – issued by Israel to Palestinians living in the West Bank – they received their vaccinations from medics from the Israeli police and emergency services.

“The virus knows no geographical borders and, therefore, the vaccination of the Palestinian workers is a common interest for both parties," said Eyal Zevi, head of operations at Cogat, the Israeli defence ministry body responsible for Palestinian affairs.

The scheme is aimed at maintaining “public health and the functioning of the economy,” he said, as the programme got under way on Monday, allowing tens of thousands of Palestinians to continue working in Israel and its settlements.

It comes months after Israel started its own vaccination drive in December, under which more than five million people have received their first dose out of a population of nine million.

While a fall in cases has prompted authorities to ease restrictions across Israel, West Bank cities such as Ramallah were placed under lockdown on March 6.

These local measures shuttered all non-essential businesses and saw roadblocks erected to prevent travel between areas, but failed to curb infections.

With the death toll in the Palestinian territories hitting 2,500, the Palestinian Authority announced a five-day shutdown across the West Bank from March 15.

Beyond those with Israeli work permits, Most Palestinians have no access to vaccines. Only about 4,800 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza have received their first vaccination, according to the World Health Organisation.

Mr Ghanemat, 42, a construction worker who was vaccinated at the Bethlehem checkpoint, said Israel had an obligation to inoculate all Palestinians.

“Because when we leave our jobs to go home we are meeting with our family and kids. We’re either going to give them the virus or they will give it to us.”

The Palestinian Authority has come under criticism for its vaccine distribution policy, with political figures and football players among those getting shots, along with health workers.

The PA health ministry on Saturday said hospitals had hit capacity, describing the situation as “dangerous and unprecedented”.

Ayadil Saparbekov, head of the WHO’s emergency department for the Palestinian territories, said the situation was “really worrying”.

“Over the past several weeks we had a significant increase in the number of cases in the West Bank specifically, while the number of cases in the Gaza Strip is declining,” he said.

“It’s a very small proportion of people that has been vaccinated and the virus is continuing to spread through the general population.”

Israel, Russia and the UAE have collectively donated 32,000 doses to the PA, according to the WHO, while 50,000 are being delivered from China.

The Palestinians have also signed up to Covax, an international scheme to provide countries in need with vaccines for 20 per cent of the population. The first of those doses have been delayed for weeks and are now expected to arrive around March 17.

Rights groups say Israel should expand its vaccination scheme to include all Gaza and West Bank residents.

“Israel is still thinking very narrowly about health within Israeli borders and isn’t thinking of its responsibility to the people living under its control,” said Miriam Marmur, spokeswoman for Gisha, an Israeli organisation campaigning for Palestinians’ freedom of movement.

“We’ve seen how quickly things can escalate, and the standards for Palestinians shouldn’t be whether or not hospitals are about to collapse.”

Representatives from the Israeli health ministry and Cogat were not available to comment on the vaccination programme.