Israel honors Holocaust victims as COVID-19 vaccines keep survivors alive

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A memorial siren brought traffic to a halt in Israel on Thursday as it honored six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust, and gave thanks for its swift rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as a lifesaver for elderly survivors.

With around 57% of the population having already received at least one vaccine dose, Israel’s infection rate has dropped dramatically.

That has allowed care and nursing homes to open their doors to visitors again, reuniting many of the country’s 180,000 survivors with their loved ones.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said 900 in that community had died as a result of the coronavirus. But many times more had been inoculated in time. Overall, Israel has recorded 6,270 deaths from the virus.

“Some we did not manage to reach with vaccines in time, but writ large, the vaccine succeeded,” he said, addressing the survivors at a ceremony marking the start of the annual Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day. “You got vaccinated at a record rates.”

Israel’s three national lockdowns, “were difficult for us all, but among many of you, they awakened painful memories of the terrible loneliness of your childhood”.

As the sirens sounded nationwide, traffic stopped and motorists stepped out of their vehicles to stand for two minutes in honor of the Holocaust dead.

In a ceremony in parliament, legislators lit memorial candles and read aloud the names of relatives who perished in the Holocaust.

In Bahrain, one of four Arab countries that established official ties with Israel last year, the Association of Gulf Jewish Communities planned a Holocaust remembrance event on the Internet.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by John Stonestreet)

Pfizer, Moderna COVID-19 vaccines highly effective after first shot in real-world use, -U.S. study

By Ankur Banerjee and Vishwadha Chander

(Reuters) – COVID-19 vaccines developed by Pfizer Inc with BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc reduced the risk of infection by 80% two weeks or more after the first of two shots, according to data from a real-world U.S. study released on Monday.

The risk of infection fell 90% by two weeks after the second shot, the study of just under 4,000 vaccinated U.S. healthcare personnel and first responders found.

The study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) evaluated the vaccines’ ability to protect against infection, including infections that did not cause symptoms. Previous clinical trials by the companies evaluated their vaccine’s efficacy in preventing illness from COVID-19.

The findings from of the real-world use of these messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines confirm the efficacy demonstrated in the large controlled clinical trials conducted before they received emergency use authorizations from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The study looked at the effectiveness of the mRNA vaccines among 3,950 participants in six states over a 13-week period from Dec. 14, 2020 to March 13, 2021.

“The authorized mRNA COVID-19 vaccines provided early, substantial real-world protection against infection for our nation’s healthcare personnel, first responders, and other frontline essential workers,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement.

The new mRNA technology is a synthetic form of a natural chemical messenger being used to instruct cells to make proteins that mirror part of the novel coronavirus. That teaches the immune system to recognize and attack the actual virus.

The CDC study comes weeks after real-world data from Israel suggested that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was 94% effective in preventing asymptomatic infections.

Some countries, including Britain and Canada, are allowing extended gaps between doses that differ from how the vaccines were tested in clinical trials in order to alleviate supply constraints. In the trials, there was a three-week gap between Pfizer shots and four weeks for the Moderna vaccine.

In Britain, authorities said in January that data supported its decision to move to 12 weeks between the first and second Pfizer/BioNtech shots. Pfizer and its German partner have warned that they had no evidence to prove that.

(Reporting by Ankur Banerjee and Vishwadha Chander in Bengaluru; Editing by Peter Henderson and Bill Berkrot)

UAE, Israel in talks to establish quarantine-free travel corridor

DUBAI (Reuters) – United Arab Emirates and Israel’s governments have entered formal talks to establish a quarantine-free travel corridor between the two countries to boost bilateral exchange following a normalization deal, state news agency WAM reported on Wednesday.

The travel corridor, which will apply to passengers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, will help facilitate travel for commercial, tourism and official purposes, state news agency WAM reported on Wednesday.

Israel established formal relations with the UAE and Bahrain last September as part of a U.S.-brokered agreement. The three countries share common concerns about Iran.

UAE and Israel are among the countries with the world’s fastest COVID-19 vaccination programs.

(Reporting by Nayera Abdullah in Cairo, writing by Marwa Rashad in London; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Palestinian hospitals fill up as Israel loosens COVID-19 restrictions

By Zainah El-Haroun

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian hospitals are overfull and intensive-care units operating at 100% capacity with coronavirus patients in some areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Tuesday.

Palestinian cities have introduced full lockdowns over the last two weeks to control soaring COVID-19 infections, even as neighboring Israel has begun to lift restrictions as it proceeds with one of the world’s fastest vaccination campaigns.

“The percentage of hospital occupancy in some areas has reached more than 100%,” Shtayyeh said in Ramallah, one of the West Bank cities where his Palestinian Authority (PA) exercises limited self-rule.

“The number of casualties is increasing and the number of deaths is increasing on a daily basis, forcing us to take strict, direct and unprecedented measures.”

The West Bank and Gaza, home to a combined 5.2 million Palestinians, have received around 34,700 vaccine doses to date. These came from small donations by Israel and Russia as well as 20,000 sent by the United Arab Emirates to Gaza.

Meanwhile in Israel, restaurants reopened on Sunday as the country kept up a fast pace of mass vaccinations.

“I brought millions of doses, now I’ll have to bring tens of millions of doses. I am currently in talks with Pfizer and Moderna to bring more,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Israel Army Radio, campaigning ahead of a March 23 election.

Israel has given 53% of its 9 million population at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, according to Health Ministry data, and 38% have received both doses.

The contrast has not gone unnoticed among Palestinians.

On Monday, Israel extended its vaccination program to include Palestinian laborers who work in Israel and in its West Bank settlements.

Many Palestinians argue that Israel is neglecting its obligations as an occupying power by not including them in the mass roll-out.

“The number of vaccinations in Israel is really high,” Saji Khalil, 75, told Reuters. “Even the Palestinian laborers whom they vaccinated, they did it to serve the Israeli community, not to look out for the well-being of the laborers.”

Israeli officials say that under the 1990s Oslo interim peace accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for vaccinating its population.

Many Palestinians are dissatisfied with their leaders. The PA came under fire from rights groups last week after admitting that it had sent 10% of the COVID-19 doses that it received to VIPs.

Firas Narawesh, from Ramallah, said the government had failed to provide vaccinations to ordinary Palestinians, and had “distributed vaccinations in an unfair way and in an unequal way with clear favoritism and corruption.”

(Additional reporting by Adel Abu Nimeh and Ismael Khader in Ramallah; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mark Heinrich)

Gaza is open again, to the south. But for how long?

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – A fleet of yellow Mercedes taxis lines up outside Gaza’s newly reopened Rafah crossing into Egypt, polished again and ready to roll, but with no idea for how long.

Uncertainty is a fact of life in the Palestinian border town, where 4,500 people have crossed into Egypt in the two weeks since one of Gaza’s few lifelines to the outside world swung open on Feb. 9.

The opening eased the years-long blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on the coastal strip, compounded by measures imposed by all sides to halt the spread of COVID-19.

It arose from political maneuvering: Egyptian-brokered mediation talks between rival Palestinian factions to smooth the way for possible elections.

But the travelers have no idea how long the gate will stay open.

“To me, Rafah crossing is my source of living. If it opens, I live, and I eat and buy clothes,” said Saif Rusrus, 21, who left school to sell pastries there. “As long as there are disputes, the crossing will continue to open and close.”

Israel and Egypt cite security concerns for the restrictions, pointing to the fact that Gaza is controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

The two countries allow passage for thousands of workers and humanitarian cases each year, but most of Gaza’s two million Palestinians cannot leave.

“Gaza turns into a big prison when Rafah crossing is closed,” said hepatitis patient Uday Zaanin, 38, as he waited to board the bus.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Rafah; Writing by Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Israel aims to resolve Iran disputes with Biden at adviser level

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel hopes to prevent personal tension between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden over their differences on the Iranian nuclear question by delegating talks on the topic to their senior staff, an Israeli official said.

Netanyahu’s foreign-policy fortunes have waned since Biden succeeded Republican president Donald Trump, who withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, deeming it too advantageous for Tehran – a view Israel shared.

Biden, a Democrat, wants to rejoin the deal. That has set the stage for possible new strains in the U.S.-Israel alliance.

On Monday, Netanyahu conferred with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi to present a united Israeli front on Iran – even as the conservative premier runs against the two centrists in a March election.

An official briefed on Monday’s meeting said it was agreed that Israeli misgivings about, and proposed improvements to, the deal would be relayed by Netanyahu’s National Security Council to the counterpart National Security Council in the White House.

“The intent is to work everything out at that level, and to keep that communication channel open,” the official told Reuters on Tuesday on condition on anonymity. “Obviously this has benefits where there is a risk of a ‘cold shoulder’ at chief-executive level.”

Citing unnamed sources involved in the meeting, Israel’s Army Radio reported the Netanyahu and the other ministers had decided to keep disputes with Biden “under the radar” for now.

Netanyahu’s office declined comment.

When the 2015 deal was being put together, Netanyahu’s opposition – including in a speech he delivered to the U.S. Congress – led to feuds with the then Democratic administration of Barack Obama, whom Biden served as vice president.

Netanyahu’s office said on Friday that Israel was “in close contact” with Washington on the issue and asserted that a return to the 2015 deal would “pave Iran’s path to a nuclear arsenal”.

Israel previously hinted it might shun Iran talks with Washington in the event of a new deal that it still opposes, lest such engagement give the impression of consent.

Iran, which denies seeking the bomb, began breaching the deal in 2019, following the U.S. withdrawal. It has recently stepped up violations and was cool to an administration announcement on Thursday that Washington was ready to talk about a mutual return to compliance.

Israel is reputed to have the region’s only nuclear arsenal, something it neither confirms nor denies under an “ambiguity” policy designed to ward off foes while avoiding arms races.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Pfizer wants to store vaccine at higher temperatures, making deliveries easier

FRANKFURT (Reuters) – Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE have asked the U.S. health regulator to relax requirements for their COVID-19 vaccine to be stored at ultra-low temperatures, potentially allowing it to be kept in pharmacy freezers, they said on Friday.

Approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) could send a strong signal to other regulators around the world that may ease distribution of the shot in lower-income countries.

The companies have submitted new temperature data to the FDA to support an update to the current label that would allow vials to be stored at -25 to -15 degrees Celsius (-13°F to 5°F) for a total of two weeks.

The current label requires the vaccine to be stored at temperatures between -80ºC and -60ºC (-112ºF to -76ºF), meaning it has to be shipped in specially designed containers.

The shot’s cold-storage requirements set off a scramble among U.S. states at the beginning of the rollout for dry ice, in which it can be stored temporarily when there are no specialized freezers available, for instance in rural areas.

Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the higher temperatures should “greatly expand the ability to use this vaccine in many parts of the world (or even the U.S.) that do not have the capacity for deep freeze storage”.

Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine, along with Moderna Inc’s two-dose shot, has already won U.S. emergency-use authorization and is being widely distributed as part of the country’s mass vaccination efforts.

The update from the drugmakers comes as two studies from Israel found that the vaccine greatly reduced virus transmission, and the shot was backed by two of the South African government’s top advisers.

The new data also will be submitted to global regulatory agencies within the next few weeks, the two companies said.

A BioNTech spokeswoman declined to provide more details on the timing and which agencies would be contacted.

“The data submitted may facilitate the handling of our vaccine in pharmacies and provide vaccination centers an even greater flexibility,” BioNTech Chief Executive Ugur Sahin said.

Deutsche Post, which has shipped COVID-19 vaccines to several European countries, Israel, Bahrain, Mexico and Singapore, among other states, said -25 degrees would provide some relief but transportation would still not be easy.

A spokeswoman said air freight would likely no longer require dry ice on board, increasing storage capacity per plane.

BioNTech has said it imposed long-term storage and transportation requirements of -70 degrees out of caution because it had started stability and durability tests on its vaccine relatively late.

Even though it launched its COVID-19 vaccine development program as early as January 2020, working on four compounds in parallel, it did not decide until July which of the four to proceed with, and only then started stability tests.

If approved, the less onerous storage requirements would provide significant logistical relief.

The World Health Organization’s COVAX global vaccine-sharing program has so far limited distribution of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to just a few countries, partly out of concern over a lack of infrastructure in developing nations.

The WHO said it was hopeful that eased requirements could broaden its reach.

“We are aware of reports of this and look forward to seeing the data. If proven correct, this could make rollout of the vaccine easier in all countries, and particularly in low-income ones,” it said.

Moderna’s product, which like Pfizer’s is based on so-called messenger RNA molecules, is already cleared for storage at -25 to -15 degrees Celsius.

(Reporting by Manojna Maddipatla and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, John Miller in Zurich, Matthias Inverardi in Duesseldorf, Michael Erman in Maplewood, N.J. and Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta, Anil D’Silva, Jan Harvey and Nick Macfie)

International Criminal Court rules it has jurisdiction over Palestinian territories

By Toby Sterling and Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The International Criminal Court ruled on Friday that it has jurisdiction over war crimes or atrocities committed in the Palestinian Territories, paving the way for a criminal investigation, despite Israeli objections.

The decision prompted swift reactions from both Israel, which is not a member of the court and again rejected its jurisdiction, and the Palestinian Authority, which welcomed the ruling.

The ICC judges said their decision was based on rules in the Hague-based court’s founding documents and does not imply any attempt to determine statehood or legal borders.

The court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said in December 2019 there was “a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes have been or are being committed in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.”

She named both the Israeli Defense Forces and armed Palestinian groups such as Hamas as possible perpetrators.

She said she intended to open an investigation — as soon as judges ruled on whether the situation fell under the court’s jurisdiction or not.

In a majority ruling published Friday night, the judges said it does.

“The Court’s territorial jurisdiction in the Situation in Palestine … extends to the territories occupied by Israel since 1967, namely Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem,” they said.

That Palestine’s status under international law is still uncertain does not matter, the judges said, as it has been admitted to membership of parties to the court.

In a reaction, Human Rights Watch called the decision “pivotal” and said it “finally offers victims of serious crimes some real hope for justice after a half century of impunity,” said Balkees Jarrah, associate international justice director.

“It’s high time that Israeli and Palestinian perpetrators of the gravest abuses – whether war crimes committed during hostilities or the expansion of unlawful settlements – face justice.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reacted, saying “the court is ignoring the real war crimes and instead is pursuing Israel, a country with a strong democratic regime, that sanctifies the rule of law, and is not a member of the tribunal.”

He added Israel would “protect all of our citizens and soldiers” from prosecution.

“The court in its decision impairs the right of democratic countries to defend themselves,” Netanyahu said.

The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was a “historic day for the principle of accountability.”

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas official, described the decision as “an important development that contributes in protecting the Palestinian people.”

“We urge the international court to launch an investigation into Israeli war crimes against the Palestinian people,” said Abu Zuhri, who is currently outside Gaza.

The United States has “serious concerns” about the ICC’s effort to assert jurisdiction over Israeli personnel in the Palestinian territories, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said, adding the U.S. government was reviewing the ruling.

ICC prosecutor Bensouda was expected to react later on Friday.

The Trump administration had vehemently opposed the ICC and its mission. Jamil Dakwar, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Human Rights Program, said U.S. President Joe Biden should do nothing to undermine the ICC’s independence.

“It’s important to remember that the ICC investigation would also target Palestinian perpetrators of war crimes in the context of hostilities between Israel and Palestinian armed groups, especially in the Gaza Strip,” Dakwar said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Toby Sterling, Anthony Deutsch, Stephanie van den Berg, Ari Rabinovitch, Stephen Farrell, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Arshad Mohammed, Humeyra Pamuk and Simon Lewis; Editing by Aurora Ellis and Daniel Wallis)

Crossing the COVID chasm between Israel and the Palestinian Territories

By Zainah El-Haroun and Adel Abu Nimeh

JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) – As a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, Ismail Daiq is used to negotiating the dividing lines between communities: the daily commute to his Jordan Valley date farm involves crossing a checkpoint on his way home.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has created another fault line for him to navigate: the stark difference between access to vaccines in Israel and in the Palestinian territories.

Living within the Israeli health system, Daiq, 62, has already received his second COVID-19 vaccination in a country that is a leader in the world’s inoculation drive.

But his Palestinian siblings and 95-year-old mother in Jericho are still awaiting a vaccine rollout that has only just begun under the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited sovereignty in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Daiq is eligible for vaccination because he became a Jerusalem resident two decades ago when he married a woman from the city.

The rest of his family, friends and employees do not qualify, because they only have West Bank identity papers that do not let them pass through the Israeli checkpoints that control entry to the city.

So when the date farmer travels each day into the Palestinian territories, he is uncomfortably aware that while he feels safe, his loved ones are still at risk from the virus.

“I feel guilty, I feel very sad, because I want all my family safe,” Daiq told Reuters.

“When you see that you can get these services, the vaccination, and all of the family, they can’t get this vaccination, you feel that there is a difference between you and your family.”

Although Israel and the Palestinian Authority coordinate on security issues, political relations have foundered. Negotiations last broke down in 2014.

In January, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in their inoculation program.

Israeli officials have said that this is the job of the Palestinian authorities.

“If it is the responsibility of the Israeli health minister to take care of the Palestinians, what exactly is the responsibility of the Palestinian health minister?” Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told the BBC last month.

While Israel has so far vaccinated a third of its 9 million citizens, the Palestinian Authority received its first batch of 2,000 vaccines – supplied by Israel – on Monday. West Bank health workers received the first shots.

Daiq said he tried to avoid the subject with his family, because his mother kept asking him when she would be inoculated.

His brother Ibrahim, 60, said that he wished good health to “every person on this land” but that there was a sense of unfairness among Palestinians.

“Because of this, my natural rights as a human being, me and the rest of the people living in the West Bank and Gaza, considering we are a country living under occupation, we should also have the right to benefit from this vaccination.”

The West Bank, where 3.1 million Palestinians live, has reported 101,221 coronavirus cases, with 1,271 deaths. Gaza, with a population of two million, has registered more than 51,000 cases with 523 deaths. Israel has reported 663,665 coronavirus cases and 4,888 deaths.

(Reporting by Zainah El-Haroun and Adel Abu Nimeh in Jericho; Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon in London; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Israel and Kosovo establish diplomatic relations in virtual ceremony

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel and Kosovo established diplomatic relations on Monday, via online links due to the coronavirus crisis, under a U.S.-brokered deal that includes a pledge by the Muslim-majority country to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

Israel sees its new ties with the tiny Balkan country as part of its broader normalization with Arab and Muslim countries under agreements sponsored by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump announced the two countries’ ties in September as a side deal to an economic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. As part of the deal, Serbia, which has ties with Israel, also agreed to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

During a signing ceremony held via Zoom video conference, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said the new ties were “historic” and “reflect a change in the region, and in the Arab (and) Muslim world’s relationship with Israel.”

Ashkenazi said he had received an official request from Kosovo to establish a Jerusalem embassy, which Israeli officials hope will open by end-March.

Only two countries – the United States and Guatemala – have embassies in Jerusalem. Others, including Malawi and Honduras, have pledged to make the move.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest obstacles to forging a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, who with broad international backing want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as their capital.

The ceremony included the unveiling of a commemorative plaque that will be placed at the entrance to Kosovo’s embassy in Jerusalem upon opening, Israel’s foreign ministry said.

Kosovo Foreign Minister Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla said Kosovo and Israel share a “historic bond” and had both “witnessed a long and challenging path to existing as a people and becoming states.”

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a guerrilla uprising by its ethnic Albanian majority.

Haradinaj-Stublla said she had spoken in recent days with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who she said voiced President Joe Biden’s support for Kosovo’s new relations with Israel and economic agreement with Serbia.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)