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After delays and ethics debates, Israel begins vaccinating 100,000 Palestinian day laborers

A Palestinian who works in Israel takes a selfie as he receives the Moderna vaccine at the Tarkumiya crossing between the West Bank and Israel on March 8. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)
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SHA’AR EFRAIM, Israel — Israel on Monday kicked off its two-week campaign to vaccinate more than 100,000 Palestinians carrying Israeli work permits even as inoculations remain a distant dream for most residents of the West Bank.

At the crossing of Sha'ar Efraim, the Israeli military set up one of eight vaccination centers along the 440-mile-long barrier dividing Israel from the Palestinian territories with the capacity to vaccinate 1,000 people a day.

“It is within both Israeli and Palestinian interests that we vaccinate the workers since, as we know, coronavirus knows no geographical boundaries,” said Lior Wisbaum, foreign relations officer at Cogat, the Israeli military agency that coordinates with the Palestinian Authority.

Israel is starting to vaccinate, but Palestinians may have to wait months

On Tuesday, Cogat is scheduled to open four similar vaccination clinics at industrial centers within the West Bank.

Some 80,000 Palestinians from the West Bank work in Israel proper, mostly in construction, agriculture and other menial fields. An additional 35,000 work in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Two-thirds of those day laborers have been unemployed since April, according to a report by the Bank of Israel.

“In light of the long-standing partnership between Israeli employers and workers and Palestinian workers at construction sites, we believe it would be fair and even moral to promote” their vaccination, said a statement by the Israeli Builders Association — which has been petitioning Israel’s Health Ministry for weeks to vaccinate them.

“There is no other way out of this than the vaccine,” said Muawar Ahmad, a worker at the Sha’ar Efraim crossing who said he was the first Palestinian to be inoculated as part of the Israeli program when it conducted a pilot run Thursday. “It is a way to freedom, for everyone.”

Human rights groups have accused Israel of shirking its legal obligations to inoculate Palestinians living only miles away and under its military occupation. The Israeli Health Ministry has countered that under the Oslo accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for managing health care within its jurisdiction.

Nonetheless, it has admitted that it is in Israel’s interest to extend vaccinations into a neighboring population that sends tens of thousands of laborers into the country every day.

Since December, Israel has established itself as one of the world’s fastest inoculated countries, with now more than 90 percent of the 50-and-older population fully vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus.

But in the adjacent West Bank, the ruling PA has acquired only about 12,000 coronavirus vaccine doses, including 2,000 that have been shared from Israel’s Moderna supply and 10,000 from Russia’s Sputnik V. In recent weeks, Gaza has received 2,000 Sputnik V doses from the PA and an additional 20,000 of the same brand from the United Arab Emirates.

“We depend totally on donations, and the donors, they have their own domestic priorities now,” said Salwa Najjab, a member of the Palestinian national coronavirus committee. “The people feel like they are in prison.”

Palestinian officials have said they also expect to receive 37,000 Pfizer-BioNTech doses and 168,000 AstraZeneca doses, through the global-sharing initiative Covax, over the coming months, with the expectations to ultimately receive 2 million AstraZeneca doses.

Last month, China also committed to donating several thousand doses of its own vaccine brand, Sinovac, to the Palestinians, though a timeline has not been announced.

As the majority of the roughly 5 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip remain unvaccinated, coronavirus infections are on the rise, and 95 percent of the intensive care unit beds in West Bank hospitals are occupied.

Officials in the West Bank have identified schools and the foreign coronavirus mutations as major causes for the rapid spread of the infection.

Kamal Shakhra, head of the coronavirus department in the Palestinian Ministry of Health, said in an interview with Voice of Palestine Radio that the variant that was first found in Britain appeared in the overwhelming majority of a randomized sample study of 800 infections. He said that most came from Palestinians who spent time in Israel.

The World Bank has said that the Palestinian territories have one of the lowest testing rates in the Middle East and North Africa, estimating a positivity rate of over 21 percent in the West Bank and Gaza.

“As the pandemic becomes even more prolonged, the additional strains on the fragile socioeconomic and health systems make it much harder to effectively deal with the crisis,” said Kanthan Shankar, the World Bank country director for the West Bank and Gaza.

More than 1,500 people have died of the coronavirus in the West Bank, while Gaza has reported 553 deaths.

“No one from the Palestinian Authority is coming to help, so yes, it is the responsibility of the state of Israel” to step in, said Bakr Seruji, a day laborer and father of seven from the Palestinian town of Tulkarem, sipping coffee after receiving a vaccination Monday morning. “The Israelis, we live with them, we are the same people; this is our only chance.”

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