Friday, July 23, 2021

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


TEL AVIV - Israeli officials are working to revive talks to deliver vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority after a deal last Friday was suddenly called off by P.A. officials who said that the vaccines were too close to their expiration date and do 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 even while their neighbor, Israel, is mostly returning to pre-pandemic life.

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

On Friday, Israeli officials celebrated the finalization of the three-way deal between the two governments and Pfizer, by 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 signaled that the move marked the beginning of a chapter of re-engagement between Israel and the Palestinians after more than a decade 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 added.

Hours later, however, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh scrapped the deal, saying that the first shipment of some 100,000 Pfizer doses was due to expire at the end of the month and so too close to their expiration date.

At a news conference Friday evening, 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 they would not accept returned doses and that if they were not used by the Palestinian Authority they would need to be thrown out.

The vaccine exchange had been in the works for several months under Netanyahu and 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, said an Israeli official who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

He added that Israel had also offered to donate syringes and other medical equipment to assist with the inoculation campaign, though the PA refused the offer.

After the deal was canceled on Friday, rumors circulated on social media that Israel, in collusion with the P.A., 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. He said that the already deeply unpopular Palestinian Authority has potentially lost an even greater amount of legitimacy in its vaccine campaign with last week's announcement.

Since its inoculation rollout kicked off in December, Israel has established itself as a global vaccine leader after purchasing millions of doses at above-market prices and signing a data-sharing agreement with Pfizer. On June 15, the Israeli government ended the mask mandate for most indoor spaces, citing health experts who had concluded that Israel has reached a version of herd immunity.

Shipments from Covax - the WHO-linked global vaccination program - Russia, China, the UAE, and several thousand doses donated from Israel have trickled into Ramallah over the past year, though significantly behind the expected schedule.

Kaila, the health minister, said on Saturday that 106 new cases, one death in the West Bank and one death in Gaza had been recorded since Friday. She said that of the some 5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, 270,800 have been fully vaccinated and another 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 to 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 for 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, now that they're closed to expiring they made this deal," said Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian physician and political opposition activist. "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."

Published : June 21, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Shira Rubin