In recent weeks, I've been to Israel's mass vaccination centres in Jerusalem. I've interviewed Israelis, Palestinian Arabs, citizens and foreign nationals about their experiences of getting immunised. My conclusion is clear. Israel is not 'excluding' Palestinians from the vaccination programme, or discriminating between its own Jewish and Arab citizens – whatever the Observer may say.
On January 3, the paper asserted that Palestinians were 'excluded from the Israeli Covid vaccine', juxtaposing them with 'settlers', which it claimed received vaccinations.
The article, and further assertions that Israel was denying vaccinations to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip or West Bank, was misleading. In fact, by the definition used by the Observer's sister paper the Guardian, Israel is actually providing vaccinations to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem.
To understand how Israel is conducting its mass vaccination campaign, and why there has been so much misreporting, it's important to understand how Israel's health system works and how the country has approached the Covid crisis.
Since February, Israel has viewed the Covid outbreak as a national security issue, stockpiling personal protective equipment and using its security services, including Mossad, to acquire masks, ventilators and other necessities. Israel also sought out about eight million doses from Pfizer in a November deal, and ordered more than six million Moderna vaccine doses. Since receiving the first deliveries of the new drugs, Israel has conducted an unprecedented campaign of immunisation, providing the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to a million people in two weeks. This put the country in the spotlight as a world leader in vaccinating its citizens.
Israel provides the jabs through its state-mandated, semi-private health providers like Clalit, Maccabi and Meuhedet. Its campaign began by targeting people over 60-years-old. Despite some initial confusion, health professionals also treated younger people who showed up at vaccination centres. This was because once Pfizer vaccines are removed from cold storage they need to be used, and Israel doesn't want to waste them.
What about the Palestinians? First of all, Israel is providing vaccines to everyone in its health network, including Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem who have Israeli health care. Second, there are cases of non-citizens in Israel getting vaccinated by showing up at one of the mass vaccination points. This is because the mission of health professionals is to vaccinate anyone who shows up. The virus doesn't distinguish between populations, and neither does medical care. The Guardian refers to Arab residents of east Jerusalem as Palestinians: therefore, by its own definition Israel has not excluded Palestinians.
The Palestinian Authority, a semi-autonomous government that is recognised as the state of Palestine by 139 countries administers health care to millions of its own citizens. The Guardian's article on Israel 'excluding' Palestinians notes that the 'cash-strapped Palestinian Authority, which maintains limited self-rule in the territories, is rushing to get vaccines. One official suggested, perhaps optimistically, that shots could arrive within the next two weeks... Despite the delay, the authority has not officially asked for help from Israel.'
In other words, the Guardian that asserts Palestinians were excluded goes on to admit that they were not excluded. Put it this way. The Palestinian Authority has not asked Israel to vaccinate its public. Hamas, the terror group that has run the Gaza Strip since 2006 after throwing the Palestinian Authority out, has not asked Israel for vaccinations. Ali Abed Rabbo, director-general of the Palestinian health ministry, did not tell the Guardian he wants Israel to procure vaccinations. There is a glaring inconsistency here.
Around two million Israelis will be vaccinated by the end of January, according to estimates. Israel may need to pause some of the initial dose vaccinations in order to give the first million patients their second dose. This is a complex learning process. Israel is ahead of most countries in terms of per capita provision of vaccines, but with some fifteen percent vaccinated by January 4, it is still a long road to get the adult population protected.
Overall in the region, Israel is not only a leader in vaccinations, but also in vaccinating Palestinians who are residents of Jerusalem. Israel has given the jab to more Palestinians than neighbouring countries where Palestinians reside. There are no reported plans to vaccinate local citizens or Palestinians in places like Lebanon for months.
Israel has done all it can to get people of all religions and ethnicities vaccinated.
In truth, Israel has done all it can to get people of all religions and ethnicities vaccinated. Palestinians who I interviewed said that locals were suspicious of the vaccine. In late December, Israeli health providers emphasised that they were seeking to convince Palestinians in East Jerusalem to attend vaccination stations. Ian Miskin, head of Coronavirus care and vaccination for Clalit in Jerusalem, said he was concerned about a 'subdued response', saying that it was a 'real priority' to get Palestinians from East Jerusalem vaccinated at a specialised clinic, like the one in the Arab neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Overall, it appears that Palestinian-governed areas of the West Bank will receive vaccines around the same time as neighbouring Jordan, where many millions of Palestinians also live. Palestinians I spoke to told me that the authorities in Ramallah had drawn up lists of priority populations to vaccinate. This will include the elderly, security forces and journalists. In other words, the Palestinian Authority is working on it, and will likely provide vaccines at the same pace as neighbouring Arab states.
The fundamental point is that Israel is not responsible for the health care of the residents of the Palestinian Authority. Could Israel be doing more for citizens of neighbouring territories? That is an open question. Most countries in the world are unable to provide vaccinations to their own citizens. The nature of Israel's dispute with the Palestinians creates complex questions about this issue, but it is not due to discrimination that Israel isn't vaccinating residents of the West Bank or Gaza Strip.
The 139 countries that recognise the state of Palestine cannot also demand that Israel vaccinates citizens of a foreign state. Should Austria be blamed for not vaccinating the population of Slovakia?
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.