Palestinian Authority calls off vaccine exchange with Israel

The PA said the Pfizer vaccine doses received from Israel were set to expire soon and did not meet required standards.

A Palestinian health worker vaccinates elderly Palestinians against COVID-19 in the village of Dura near Hebron in the occupied West Bank [File: Hazem Bader/AFP]

The Palestinian Authority announced it has cancelled an agreement with Israeli regarding the exchange of Pfizer vaccines, saying the doses are set to expire soon.

Palestinian officials had come under heavy criticism on social media after the agreement was announced, with many accusing them of accepting subpar vaccines and suggesting they might not be effective.

“After the technical teams in the ministry of health examined the first batch of the Pfizer vaccines that were received this evening from Israel, it became clear that the 90,000 doses received do not conform to the specifications contained in the agreement,” PA spokesman Ibrahim Melhem said during a joint press conference on Friday with PA Health Minister Mai al-Kaila.

“Accordingly Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayyeh instructed the minister of health to cancel the agreement with the Israeli side on exchanging the vaccine and returning the quantity that was received today to Israel.”

Earlier on Friday, Israel said it will transfer about 1 million doses of soon-to-expire coronavirus vaccines to the PA in exchange for a similar number of fresh doses the Palestinians expect to receive later this year.

“Israel has signed an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, and will supply approximately one million doses of Pfizer vaccine that are about to expire,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said in a joint statement with the defence and health ministries.

Up to 1.4 million doses could be exchanged in September/October 2021, the statement added.

The statement did not give the exact expiration date of the vaccine, but COGAT, the Israeli military body that administers civilian affairs in the occupied Palestinian territories, said on Friday it had already “transferred 100,000 vaccine doses”.

The Palestinian health ministry said in an earlier statement that Pfizer was behind an initiative to “accelerate the vaccination campaign”.

Vaccine disparity

The exchange agreement had come after Israel was urged to do more to ensure Palestinian access to vaccinations as it inoculated its own citizens at world-leading speed.

Israel, which has fully reopened after vaccinating about 55 percent of its population, has faced criticism for not sharing its vaccines with the 4.5 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Rights groups have said that Israel, as an occupying power, is obliged to provide vaccines to the Palestinians. Israel denies having such an obligation, pointing to interim peace agreements reached with the Palestinians in the 1990s.

Disparities in accessing vaccinations have played out across the globe as the bulk of vaccines have gone to wealthy countries. As those countries have made progress containing their own outbreaks, they have recently begun pledging supplies for poorer countries that were left behind for months.

Criticising the dose-sharing deal, Physicians for Human Rights Israel said on Twitter: “It is highly doubtful that the PA will be able to use all the vaccines, as they are about to expire.”

Other Palestinians have also criticised the move.

Yara Asi, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center Washington, DC, said the announcement is “not as charitable as posed”.

“It doesn’t deal with any of the core issues that prevent Palestinians from having a functional health system,” she wrote on Twitter.

“If this new gov [government] wants to show it is really different, & wants to ‘benefit people,’ dismantle the occupation, lift the blockade, give Palestinians equal rights,” she said.

30 percent of Palestinians received first dose

On the Palestinian side, just over 270,000 people have received two doses in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

More than 300,000 infections have been recorded in the two territories, including 3,545 deaths.

Some 30 percent of eligible Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, home to a combined 5.2 million people, have received at least one vaccine dose, according to Palestinian officials.

According to a poll released on Tuesday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 40 percent of Palestinians are willing to take the vaccine once it is available, while 35 percent say they and their families are not willing to get vaccinated.

The Palestinians have received vaccine doses from Israel, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates and the global COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies