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Israeli Health Officials To Government: Vaccinate All Palestinians

Palestinian elementary school students wearing protective face masks take their seats in their classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic on the first day of class in September at a United Nations-run school in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Palestinian elementary school students wearing protective face masks take their seats in their classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic on the first day of class in September at a United Nations-run school in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

JERUSALEM - Israeli health officials have urged their country's leaders to help vaccinate the entire Palestinian population against COVID-19, citing a public health imperative, an outgoing senior health official told NPR Monday.

"This is really important, to vaccinate the entire Palestinian Authority population, and I believe it will go this way," said Itamar Grotto, who helped lead Israel's pandemic response and stepped down Monday as deputy director general of Israel's Health Ministry. "This is the recommendation of all the experts, and I believe that the politicians will follow our recommendations."

On Sunday, Israel said it would vaccinate about 110,000 Palestinian day laborers who work in Israel. In recent days, Israel has also vaccinated special categories of Palestinians, such as relatives of people who live in Jerusalem. Israel also vaccinated Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

"We are starting to give them more and more vaccines," Grotto said. "It is an important objective, from a public health point of view, and of course also from a humanitarian point of view."

He said Israel is giving Palestinians unused supplies of the Moderna vaccine, more of which is expected to arrive in Israel. Israelis are being immunized with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Israel has faced calls from international and Israeli aid groups and rights advocatesto help facilitate vaccines for Palestinians in occupied territory, arguing Israel is obligated to do so by the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israeli political leaderssay the Oslo Peace Accords make the semi-autonomous Palestinian Authority responsible for its own population.

Israel has already vaccinated half of its population, including Palestinian citizens and residents (of Israel). But in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the vast majority of Palestinians have not yet been vaccinated.

Palestinians have received small donations of vaccines from the United Arab Emirates, Russia and Israel. Palestinian officials ordered larger quantities of vaccines but they say manufacturers are delaying shipments. The Biden administration has urged Israel to help.

"We believe it's important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccine in the weeks ahead," State Department spokesman Ned Price said. "We believe it's important for their own – for their own needs. It's important for Israel, Israel's health and security as well."

Palestinian officials have also faced accusations of improperly distributing donated vaccines intended for health workers, to politicians and their friends. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly was secretly vaccinated. In a press conference Monday, the Palestinian anti-corruption civil society organization AMAN called on the Palestinian Authority to form a committee to investigate "corrupt" vaccine distribution.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.