Israel extends lockdown as PA receives first shipment of Russian vaccine

What happened: Last night the Israeli cabinet extended the lockdown by a further 10 days as a record 10,051 infections were confirmed on Monday.

  • It was also decided that starting Friday night, all passengers wanting to fly to Israel will be required to show a negative coronavirus test no more than three days prior to the flight, proof they have been vaccinated or have recovered from coronavirus. The cabinet also said it would ramp up enforcement of the lockdown in neighbourhoods with very high infection rates.
  • Prime Minister Netanyahu told his ministers: “This might not be popular nor convenient during elections, but this is what we need to decide today. It’s a lot easier to ignore the incredible jump in morbidity and just open everything, but this will cost many lives.”
  • According to reports, Defence Minister Benny Gantz was only prepared to vote for the extension on condition that there be significant enforcement in areas where the lockdown is being violated. He further called for limiting entry and exit to the country and that school children aged 16-18 be vaccinated to ensure exams are held as planned.
  • Coronavirus commissioner Nachman Ash had recommended extending the lockdown by two weeks until 4 February.
  • Health Ministry figures showed a record 10,051 infections on Monday, increasing the number of active cases to 82,652, of which 1,113 are in a serious condition with a new high of 308 on ventilators. There have been 4,142 deaths since the pandemic began. The rate of positive tests has also passed the 10 per cent mark for the first time in over three months, with 10.3 per cent of the over 100,000 tests coming back positive.
  • Israel has administered the first dose of the vaccine to over 2.2 million citizens, with more than 400,000 receiving the second dose as well.
  • Yesterday, the Palestinian Authority (PA) reportedly received its first shipment of 5,000 units of the Russian COVID-19 vaccine known as Sputnik V. On Monday, PA Prime Minister Shtayyeh confirmed that the PA had signed a contract worth $10m for 2m vaccination doses from AstraZeneca within two months.  

The Palestinian territories and the vaccine: The Israeli government is facing criticism from human rights groups and international organisations for not extending the vaccination programme currently underway in Israel to the millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  

  • The Israeli government is embarking on an unprecedented drive to become on the first countries to vaccinate its entire population, including Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinians in East Jerusalem and in Israeli prisons, after receiving supplies from Pfizer. In return, Israel has agreed to share its vaccination data with the pharmaceutical company to help it ascertain how successful its COVID-19 vaccine will be.
  • The argument from critics that Israel is carrying out “medical apartheid” is based upon Israel’s perceived international law obligations as an “occupying power” to vaccinate the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza. However, the Oslo Accords, signed in the 1990s by Israel and the Palestinians, moved the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians beyond the default occupier/occupied legal paradigm by creating the Palestinian Authority (PA) and giving it a range of autonomous powers. Specifically, the Accords gave the PA control of their own healthcare provision – something they wanted as a step toward statehood.
  • Oslo II, Article 17, Annex III, states:
    1. “Powers and responsibilities in the sphere of Health in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip will be transferred to the Palestinian side, including the health insurance system.”
    2. “The Palestinian side shall continue to apply the present standards of vaccination of Palestinians and shall improve them according to internationally accepted standards in the field, taking into account WHO recommendations. In this regard, the Palestinian side shall continue the vaccination of the population.”
    3. “Israel and the Palestinian side shall exchange information regarding epidemics and contagious diseases, shall cooperate in combating them and shall develop methods for exchange of medical files and documents.”
  • As part of the Accords, the PA Health Ministry is responsible for vaccinating the Palestinian population for all known diseases, including Hepatitis B, Polio, MMR, Tuberculosis etc.
  • Nevertheless, Israel does have a personal stake in making sure the Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is fully vaccinated. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein recently told Sky News: “We do understand that it’s in Israeli interests that there will be less cases on the Palestinian side. Many of the Palestinians are working here in Israel. You can’t divide the two neatly and say, you know, ‘they can deal with it themselves; it’s not our issue’. It is our issue.” He added that Israel “will definitely consider” passing on surplus vaccines to the Palestinian, “but as I’ve said, I sincerely hope that by that time part of their population will be vaccinated by different vaccines that they are trying to purchase. If any other help will be needed, we will offer.”
  • Israel is not withholding COVID vaccines from the Palestinians.Israel allows the passage of humanitarian and medical equipment, food, and other items required for everyday civilian life to Gaza, despite its security concerns over Hamas. As reported by Reuters on 10 January, an official of the World Health Organization confirmed that informal discussions had been held with Israel regarding allocating inoculation supplies for Palestinian health workers and that Israel had agreed to explore the option.
  • Even if Israel wanted to help, the PA Ministry of Health has not requested assistance from its Israeli counterpart to acquire mass vaccines. In fact, the PA has been assuring its population for two months that its Ministry of Health is in control, has ordered vaccines, and that their arrival is imminent, without Israel’s help. The PA is eager to demonstrate to the international community that it has the capability to vaccinate its own citizens.
  • The PA has signed its own deals to receive vaccines for the West Bank and GazaOn 12 December, the PA announced it had order 4m vaccines from Russia, without any request from the Israelis for assistance. Then, on 9 January 2021 the PA said, “Four vaccine producer companies [will deliver for] 70 per cent of the Palestinian people … the WHO will provide for 20 per cent,” which included 2m vaccines from AstraZeneca. Most vaccines are expected to arrive in the Palestinian territories from mid-March.
  • This timescale, according to figures from the Economist Intelligence Unit, puts the Palestinians way ahead of all of Africa and most central and south-east Asian countries where vaccines are not expected to be widely available till 2022.
  • When asked for assistance, Israel has stepped up to help the PalestiniansLast week the government told the High Court of Justice that it had secretly delivered 100 or so vaccines to the PA. It came after Palestinian liaison officials had quietly contacted Israel’s Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) department to request the vaccine. The Israelis had agreed to help since it was vital to maintain a degree of goodwill in coordination between the two sides on the West Bank.
  • Israel has also helped the Palestinians in combatting the spread of the virus. According to a statement by Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, IDF Maj. Gen. Abu Rukun on 26 November 2020, “COGAT is allowing assistance from the international community to the health system of the Gaza Strip. So far, many dozens of ventilator machines have arrived, as well as many PCR machines, which have increased the pace of testing from 200 to 2,500 tests a day.”
  • Rukun added: “Dozens of oxygen generators have arrived, and hundreds of inhalers for hospital use and home use. Hundreds of hospital beds have been added, and with our coordination, approximately 600 tons of essential medications and medical equipment have been allowed entry, including tens of thousands of coronavirus testing kits.”

Looking ahead: The current lockdown in Israel will end on 31 January.

  • Netanyahu aims to vaccinate all citizens over the age of 16 by the end of March, coinciding with the election.
  • The head of the National Security Council, Meir Ben Shabbat, has warned that 300,000 Israelis over the age of 60 are yet to be inoculated, and health officials estimate the British mutation is behind 30-40 per cent of current infections and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks.
  • Health officials fear Israel will eventually get to a fourth lockdown, two months from now, if the current lockdown is not ended slowly, carefully and in stages.

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