Covid-19: Why are Palestinians behind in vaccine efforts?

By Reality Check
BBC News

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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 only just started vaccinating.

So what is the situation in the West Bank and Gaza - regarded as occupied territories by the international community?

How many Israelis and Palestinians have been vaccinated?

Israel leads the world in terms of the number of doses per head of population, with more than 74 doses given for every 100 people.

It has also started to transfer some doses to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, so that vaccinations can begin for frontline health workers.

In occupied East Jerusalem, all Palestinians 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

That's 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 more than 189,000 confirmed coronavirus cases and more than than 2,100 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 Ministry of Health - which operates in the West Bank - said in a statement that they have deals with four companies that will provide enough vaccines for 70% of its people.

A delivery of 10,000 doses of Russian-made vaccine has now arrived. Israel says it is giving 5,000 doses to the Palestinians - two thousand of these have been delivered to the West Bank so far.

The population of the West Bank and Gaza is now around five million, according to the latest UN estimates.

The Palestinians have also said they expect to vaccinate about 20% of the population with doses supplied under the international Covax scheme, backed by the WHO.

This is a global effort to get vaccines to poorer countries, who may not be able to secure enough supplies on their own. These will be given free or at reduced prices.

Covax has said that the West Bank and Gaza would get an initial 240,000 doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, and 37,440 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, with some of this expected to arrive in late February.

However, getting vaccines to Gaza 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.

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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.

They say - despite Israel's position on the issue - the Fourth Geneva Convention is specific about the duty of the occupying power to provide healthcare.