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Covid-19: Why are Palestinians not getting vaccines?

By Reality Check

BBC News

media captionCovid-19: Vaccine divides in the Middle East

Israel has the highest rate of Covid-19 vaccination per person in the world while the Palestinian territories have barely started to roll out vaccines.

So what is the situation in the West Bank and Gaza – regarded as occupied territories by the international community – and why are they not vaccinating people against coronavirus?

How many Israelis and Palestinians have been vaccinated?

More than a quarter of Israel’s population of nine million have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine since 19 December, its health ministry says.

The programme started with elderly people and others considered at high risk, but people aged 40 and over can also now get the jab.

Israel leads the world in terms of the number of doses per head of population.

However, with the exception of those in East Jerusalem, no-one in the Palestinian areas has started receiving Covid vaccines.

All Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem are entitled to be vaccinated against Covid by Israel, as are medics working at the six Palestinian hospitals there – many of whom come from other parts of the West Bank and Gaza.

image copyrightGetty Images

image captionIsrael started rolling out its vaccination programme in December

This is because Palestinians in East Jerusalem have Israeli residency status – so those living there pay Israeli taxes and have access to Israeli health insurance.

According to the latest World Health Organization (WHO) data, there have been nearly 175,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than than 1,960 deaths among Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

The case fatality rate for these areas is 1.1% – that’s the proportion of reported infections which result in a person dying.

In Israel, it is 0.7%, according to WHO data.

When will Palestinians get vaccines?

The Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and Gaza are planning to get vaccines from a few sources.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health – which operates in the West Bank – said in a statement that they are doing deals with four companies that will provide enough vaccine for 70% of its people, although it’s not clear when they will arrive.

A delivery of 5,000 Russian-made vaccine doses has arrived and some doses are being given out, but it’s unclear at the moment who is receiving them.

The Palestinian authorities in the West Bank have said they expect to vaccinate about 20% of the population with doses supplied under the Covax scheme, backed by the WHO.

This is an international effort to get vaccines to poorer countries, who may not have been able to secure enough supplies on their own.

However, the global vaccine alliance Gavi, which backs Covax, was not able to confirm to the BBC how much the Palestinian areas would get, and when.

The WHO told the BBC that vaccines supplied under the Covax scheme, as well as those procured by the Palestinian authorities, would go to Gaza.

However, it is faced with the logistical challenges of the restrictions imposed on the area, which has been under blockade by Israel and Egypt since the militant Islamist movement Hamas took charge there in 2007.

There have also been reports of Hamas getting vaccines from the Gulf state of Qatar.

What about Palestinians working in Israel?

There have been calls to give jabs to the thousands of Palestinian workers who cross into Israel for work, including a significant number in the construction industry, who have been cut off by lockdown restrictions.

Around 133,000 Palestinians work in Israel and its settlements in the West Bank, according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.

Most cross over to Israel from the West Bank on a daily basis.

“I think it is logical that we vaccinate the Israeli people and also the Palestinians at least that are working with us,” Raul Srugo, president of the Israel Builders Association, told the BBC.

Some health experts have warned of the dangers of the continued spread of the virus in Israel if the vaccine programme is not extended to Palestinians, because of how the two populations often mix.

Whose responsibility is it to vaccinate Palestinians?

The United Nations (UN) human rights body has released a statement saying it’s Israel’s responsibility to provide equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

The body says differential access is “morally and legally” unacceptable under international law laid out in the Geneva Conventions on the regulation of occupied territories.

image copyrightGetty Images

But Israeli health minister, Yuli Edelstein, told the BBC: “We can also look into the so-called Oslo agreements where it says loud and clear that the Palestinians have to take care of their own health.”

The Oslo accords – which Israel signed with the Palestine Liberation Organisation – give the Palestinian Authority oversight of public health under the principles of self-determination.

But the Palestinian authorities point to another part of those accords which says: “Israel and the Palestinian side shall exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, shall co-operate in combating them and shall develop methods for [the] exchange of medical files and documents.”

The Oslo accords, agreed in 1993 and 1995, set out how parts of the West Bank and Gaza would be governed under an interim framework until a permanent peace settlement can be reached.

But UN experts say international law takes priority over these accords.

The experts say the fourth Geneva Convention is specific about the duty of the occupying power to provide healthcare, but Israel often argues it isn’t technically occupying the West Bank and Gaza.

It’s a matter on which international law experts disagree, and many issues surrounding the governing and final status of the occupied territories remain unresolved.

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