By Rami Ayyub
TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel will send at least 1 million soon-to-expire COVID-19 vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority (PA) under a deal to share shots, officials said on Friday.
Under the terms of the deal, announced by new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office, the PA agreed to give Israel a reciprocal number of doses from one of its own shipments due to arrive later this year.
Rights groups have criticized Israel, which led the world with its swift vaccine roll-out, for not doing more to ensure Palestinian access to doses in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, territory it captured in a 1967 war.
Criticizing the dose-sharing deal, Physicians for Human Rights Israel said on Twitter: “It is highly doubtful that the PA will be able to use all the vaccines, as they are about to expire.”
The vaccine deal was among initial policy moves towards the Palestinians by Bennett, who was sworn in on Sunday and replaced veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Israel will transfer to the Palestinian Authority 1-1.4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine,” a joint statement from Bennett’s office and the health and defense ministries said.
The Pfizer-BioNTech doses earmarked for transfer “will expire soon”, the statement said, and they were “approved in light of the fact that Israel’s vaccine stock meets its needs today”. The statement did not give their exact expiration date.
An initial 100,000 doses were transferred on Friday, Israeli officials said.
A source in the PA health ministry confirmed the deal and said the Palestinians expect to receive a shipment of Pfizer doses in August or September. The Israeli statement said Israel would receive reciprocal doses from the PA in September or October.
Around 55% of eligible Israelis are fully vaccinated – a coverage rate largely unchanged by this month’s expansion of eligibility to include 12- to 15-year-olds.
Some 30% of eligible Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, home to a combined 5.2 million people, have received at least one vaccine dose, according to Palestinian officials.
According to a poll released on Tuesday by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 40% of Palestinians are willing to take the vaccine once it is available, while 35% say they and their families are not willing to get vaccinated.
The Palestinians have received vaccine doses from Israel, Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates and the global COVAX vaccine-sharing initiative.
(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by William Maclean, Timothy Heritage and Frances Kerry)