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Israel struggles to restore vaccine swap deal after Palestinians reject doses for being too old

A medical worker receives a coronavirus vaccine at the Palestinian Red Crescent Hospital in the West Bank city of Hebron on June 18. (Abed Al Hashlamoun/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

TEL AVIV — Israeli officials are working to revive talks to deliver vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority after a deal Friday was suddenly called off by authority officials, who said the doses were too close to their expiration date and did not meet their standards.

Some 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are still without sufficient vaccine supplies as shipments from other sources continue to lag, while Israel is mostly returning to pre-pandemic life.

The announcement and cancellation of the deal has given rise to conspiracy theories and further damaged the low standing of the Palestinian Authority among its people.

Palestinians cancel vaccine deal with Israel, saying doses are too close to expiration date

On Friday, Israeli officials celebrated the finalization of the three-way deal between the two governments and Pfizer in which Israel would ship more than 1 million doses of its vaccine to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for a similar number of doses to be delivered back to Israel later this year.

Israeli officials said the move marked the beginning of a chapter of re-engagement between Israel and the Palestinians after a dozen years under right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz tweeted on Friday that the “vaccine exchange is in the interest of all parties” and that he hoped it would promote “cooperation between Israel and her Palestinian neighbors.”

“Corona does not recognize borders or differentiate between peoples,” he said.

But hours later, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh scrapped the deal, saying the first 100,000 Pfizer doses were due to expire at the end of the month, which was too soon.

Palestinian Health Minister Mai al-Kaila said health officials who inspected the vaccines found they “did not meet standards and so we decided to return them.”

The Israeli Health Ministry said it would not accept returned doses. If they were not used by the Palestinian Authority, officials said, they would be thrown out.

The vaccine exchange had been in the works for several months under Netanyahu. It had been made clear to all sides that the first doses shipped out would be the first to expire, as is also protocol in Israel, according to an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

The official said Israel had also offered to donate syringes and other medical equipment to assist with the inoculation campaign, but the authority refused the offer.

After the deal was canceled Friday, rumors circulated on social media that Israel, in collusion with the authority, had been trying to “poison” Palestinians with expired doses. Palestinian opposition activists are calling for an independent investigation into the deal and its co-signers.

“We can buy vaccines ourselves, and we do not need Israel,” said a Fatah official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter. He said the announcement might have cost the already deeply unpopular authority more legitimacy in its vaccine campaign.

Since its inoculation rollout kicked off in December, Israel, which purchased millions of doses at above-market prices and signed a data-sharing agreement with Pfizer, has established itself as a global vaccine leader. The Israeli government ended the mask mandate for most indoor spaces on Tuesday, citing health experts who concluded that Israel had reached a version of herd immunity.

Ramallah has received shipments from Covax — the World Health Organization-linked global vaccination program — and Russia, China and the United Arab Emirates as well as several thousand doses donated from Israel, though significantly behind schedule.

Kaila, the health minister, said Saturday that 106 new coronavirus cases, one death in the West Bank and one death in Gaza had been recorded since Friday. Of the roughly 5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, she said, 270,800 have been fully vaccinated, and an additional 174,800 have received the first jab. That number includes around 100,000 Palestinian day laborers who were inoculated by the Israeli army in March.

Israel manages all travel and trade into the West Bank, most of which is under full Israeli control, as well as into Gaza, which is under a joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade.

For months, human rights organizations have called on Israel, as an occupying power, to provide medical intervention that would bolster the lagging vaccination campaign in the Palestinian territories. But Netanyahu repeatedly asserted that the Palestinian Authority was responsible for public health under the terms of the Oslo accords.

“Israel denied us vaccines for a very long time, even when they had extra millions,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian physician and political opposition activist. “Now that they’re close to expiring, they made this deal.”

“Israel wanted to exchange the doses for fresh ones, to sell us something that’s corrupt, and now, as we wait for shipments from Covax and WHO, we’ll need to do a lot of damage control.”

Sufian Taha in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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