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Israel, COVID-19, Palestinians and Israeli Arabs

by Mitchell Bard
(April 15, 2021)

Israel Ranks Safest
Working Together at the Outset
Managing the Virus
PA Contributes to Crisis
BDS Prevents Aid to Palestinians
False Claims Demonize Israel
Vaccines for Palestinians
Double Standards
Vaccine R&D Cooperation
Palestinian Spreaders?

Deal For Vaccine Exchange Falls Through

Israel Ranks Safest

Like nearly every country in the world, Israel has been hard hit by the spread of the COVID-19 virus. In April and June 2020, Israel was ranked as the safest and third safest country in the world. Following the approval of vaccines to combat the virus, Israel became a model for distribution. By the end of January 2021, Uri Friedman noted, “it has already provided more than a quarter of its people with at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, outpacing every other country in the world and more than sextupling the percentage in the United States.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials and many of Israel’s detractors have spread lies and misinformation suggesting that Israel is responsible for the virus and that it is in various ways denying medical care to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, for example accused IDF soldiers of deliberately spreading the virus “on car handles.”

Cal State Stanislaus Professor Asad Abukhalil, tweeted, “Israel will—I am sure—have different medical procedures for Jews and non-Jews. Non-Jews will be put in mass prisons.”

The Human Rights NGO B’Tselem also made a bogus allegation that the IDF demolished a coronavirus treatment center built by Palestinians in the Jordan Valley. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said the building was an illegally built guard post.

Another specious report was spread by the university branch of J Street, which retweeted an article from the +972 Magazine titled, “Israel didn’t publish coronavirus guidance in Arabic — so Palestinians stepped in.” This lie was also repeated on live television by a South African BDS activist who claimed Israel only distributed information about the virus in Hebrew, which was immediately rebutted by an Israeli Arab appearing on the same program who said he had received instructions in Arabic.

Working Together at the Outset

Israel is working closely with Palestinian officials to contain the coronavirus outbreak that apparently began when 19 people in Bethlehem tested positive for the disease. Israel quickly provided 250 coronavirus test kits to the Palestinian Authority and began joint training sessions for Israeli and Palestinian medical personnel to study the virus, the protection of medical personnel, and the testing of patients suspected of being virus carriers.

COGAT is also providing Israeli health ministry guidelines on prevention and protection from the virus on its website and Arabic language social media pages. In addition, COVID-19 tests from Palestinians were sent to laboratories at Israel’s Sheba Hospital.

Contrary to a report in The Guardian asserting that Israel’s blockade of Gaza “has limited the import of medicines and other essential items,” medicine and surgical equipment has been flowing into Gaza. COGAT reported that in 2019, “800 trucks providing medicine and medical equipment had entered the Gaza Strip…an increase of more than 60 trucks compared to the year of 2018.”

Between March 15 and March 21, 2020, a total of 2,547 truckloads of goods entered Gaza through the Kerem Shalom border crossing with Israel. This included 116 tanker trucks of fuel, 206 tons of medical supplies, 393 tons of agriculture products, 11,457 tons of food, and 48,667 tons of building materials.

On March 10, 2020, COGAT coordinated the transfer of 20 tons of disinfectants and hundreds of coronavirus test kits.  On March 20, 2020, alone, Israel delivered hundreds more test kits and 1,000 protective medical gear kits to Gaza. COGAT is also coordinating the delivery of thousands of masks and COVID-19 test kits donated by the World Health Organization for the West Bank and Gaza. On March 25, for example, more than 3,000 test kits and 50,000 masks were delivered to the PA.

The Palestinian Health Ministry confirmed the receipt of test kits and medical equipment from Israel requested by medical personnel in Gaza. “Handling the coronavirus outbreak takes precedence over any political consideration, and without help from Israel, Gaza would be in a very difficult situation in the case of an outbreak,” said a ministry official.

Critics of Israel’s blockade of Gaza ignore the fact that Egypt controls one of the borders and could also be a transit point for medical supplies. It is not serving that purpose; moreover, no one is demanding that Egypt end its blockade. Meanwhile, Hamas, made things more difficult by shutting down the Rafah pedestrian crossing into Egypt.

As of April 16, 2020, 291 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were diagnosed with the virus and two had died. The PA declared a state of emergency and, in cooperation with Israeli authorities, closed the city of Bethlehem. The PA also shut schools, tourist sites, churches and mosques.

Managing the Virus

“COGAT and the PA are cooperating closely and effectively to manage the outbreak of the virus,” said Col. Sharon Biton. Israeli and Palestinian health and security officials meet several times a day and created a joint “operations room” to coordinate their activities. Part of that coordination includes training sessions organized by Israel for Palestinian and Israeli medical professionals.

“We will continue working to help the Palestinian authorities curb the spread of the virus, both as an Israeli interest and for humanitarian reasons,” said Israeli Civil Administration Health Coordinator Dalia Basa. “We will expand medical training to Palestinian personnel as much as possible, as well as the transfer of medical equipment to the Palestinian healthcare system.”

Even prior to the crisis, Israel was training Palestinian medical workers. In January 2020, five nurses from the Gaza Strip and 11 from the West Bank were invited to Israel for four days of medical training conducted by Israeli physicians. This was the first time nurses participated in the training program which, in the past, involved Palestinian doctors and ambulance drivers. Prior to the virus outbreak, Prof. Raphi Walden, president of Physicians for Human Rights Israel, arranged missions of Israeli doctors to Gaza nearly every month to perform advanced surgery and provide training to Gaza physicians.

A Middle East Consortium on Infectious Disease Surveillance was set up by the Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian governments more than a decade ago to promote research collaboration and provide joint epidemiological training for doctors and nurses. In recent years, however, the Palestinians stopped participating.

The crisis has also been exacerbated by the decisions of Palestinian officials. U.S. taxpayer funding was cutoff, for example, because of the PA’s “pay-to-slay“ policy. The PA spends approximately $14 million a month on salaries for terrorists in Israeli prisons and families of martyrs. Maurice Hirsch estimated that money could buy 387,143 coronavirus test kits or 465 low-cost MIT ventilators.

In 2020, Israel transferred (including material from international organizations:

  • 110 respirators
  • 170 monitors
  • 109 oxygen generators
  • 87 intensive care beds 
  • 86 hospital beds
  • 2,313,050 surgical masks
  • 312,724 N95 masks
  • 6,967,823 surgical gloves.
  • 248,544 PCR kits 
  • Another 244,500 test kits. 

PA Contributes to Crisis

In addition, the PA has not lifted economic sanctions Mahmoud Abbas imposed on the residents of Gaza. “This farce must end immediately,” said Hassan Khraisheh, deputy speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council. “The sanctions imposed by President Abbas since 2017 have exacerbated the suffering of the people. Abbas has not even issued any order to assist the Gaza Strip. Funds and medical assistance must be provided urgently to the Gaza Strip to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

According to Bassam Tawil, “Abbas, like the rest of the Arab leaders, wants the Gaza Strip to be Israel’s problem alone. Abbas is undoubtedly looking forward to a day when he can hold Israel fully responsible for the outbreak of the coronavirus in the Gaza Strip.” Tawil added, “He is also likely waiting for the UN and many in the international community to join him in blaming Israel and Jews for the spread of the pandemic among his people while ignoring his own responsibility for the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.”

Still, Gaza has financial resources to meet the health crisis. UNRWA was expected to spend more than $1 billion in Gaza between 2016-2019, with about $33 million allotted for health care in 2019. In 2017-2018, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) budgeted nearly $16 million, including $6.4 million for health services in Gaza. Meanwhile, Hamas has an annual budget of roughly $700 million but spends $100 million of that to construct terror tunnels, rockets and mortars.

Nevertheless, while the U.S. economy is in tatters and millions of Americans are suffering, supporters of the Palestinians started lobbying Congress to provide funding to fight the virus in the disputed territories. In April 2020, the Trump administration agreed to send $5 million to Palestinian hospitals in the West Bank to help them fight the coronavirus. About the same time, Israel provided a loan to the PA to help avert an economic and humanitarian crisis.

The lack of hospital facilities is also due to the PA’s objection to an American plan to build a hospital in northern Gaza in December 2019. The PA attacked the project as an Israeli plot to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and exacerbate friction with Hamas. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine claimed the new hospital was “an Israeli intelligence base.” This followed an earlier decision to halt medical referrals for Palestinians to Israeli hospitals, depriving the people of world-class health care. Exceptions are made for VIPs, however, and Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, who spent his career demonizing Israel, went to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem after contracting COVID where, unfortunately, he died.

BDS Prevents Aid to Palestinians

The BDS campaign has criticized contacts between Palestinians and Israelis and has pressured individuals and organizations inside and outside the territories to avoid any acts of “normalization.” An-Najah University epidemiologist Zaher Nazzal said, however, “Whenever there’s a crisis that affects the people’s health, collaboration should be possible.”

The PA does not see things the same way. In May 2020, the PA refused to accept 14 tons of medical supplies to fight the pandemic because it was delivered by the United Arab Emirates‘ Etihad Airways through Israel. Palestinian health minister Mai Kaila said officials were upset the UAE failed to coordinate with them. Other sources said the Palestinians objected because the direct flight to Israel “constitutes a cover for normalization.”

On June 9, 2020, a second Etihad Airlines plane brought another shipment of medical supplies. Unlike the first flight, the Etihad logo and United Arab Emirates flag were visible on the plane. While the PA again complained, the supplies were to be transferred to the UN for distribution in the Gaza Strip.

The PA decision did not hurt Israel or deter the UAE from improving ties with Israel. It did, however, increase the risk to Palestinians of becoming infected and possibly dying of the coronavirus, and angered many people in the UAE. Prof. Abdul Khaleq Abdullah said the PA acted “out of spite” and “reflects political stupidity from a flabby leadership.” UAE political analyst Majed al-Raeesi tweeted: “Aid in the form of tons of medical supplies is not important. If the assistance was in the form of money/dollars, it wouldn’t have been rejected. May God help ordinary Palestinians against the thieves of the Palestinian Authority.”

Meanwhile, despite expecting others to boycott Israel, the Palestinians have accepted aid directly from Israel to fight the pandemic. They also accepted supplies from Turkey that came through Israel.

The plight of Palestinians was aggravated when PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced his intention to withdraw from all agreements with Israel in response to Israel’s plan to apply sovereignty to parts of the West Bank. One of those agreements involved coordination with Israel to allow Palestinians to seek medical care in Israel’s world-class hospitals. Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said Palestinians will now have to seek care in the PA or, if they live in Gaza, coordinate treatment with Egypt or the UN.

False Claims Demonize Israel 

As the pandemic worsened, Israel was accused in the media of denying vaccines to Palestinians. Ishaan Tharoor, for example, wrote in the Washington Post that Israel is giving vaccines to Jewish settlers but not Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Critics said the Israeli government’s decision to make the vaccine available only to Israeli citizens was unfair and immoral. The Palestinian Foreign Ministry also falsely claimed that Israel is responsible for providing vaccines and is “committing racial discrimination against the Palestinian people.”

Palestinians are not a race, of course, and the idea Israel is discriminating against Arabs is easily disproven by the fact that Israeli Arabs are receiving the vaccination. In fact, Israel established more than 80 vaccination stations, and more than 28 mobile stations to facilitate vaccinations in Arab communities.

Israel, however, has no obligation to vaccinate the Palestinians. Article VI of the Oslo agreement transferred responsibility for health and social welfare in the disputed territories to the Palestinians. Israel has no obligation to provide vaccines to the PA, though it could decide to do so on a humanitarian basis after inoculating its own population.

Moreover, a PA Ministry of Health official told the Jerusalem Post, “We are working on our own to obtain the vaccine from a number of sources.” He added, “We are not a department in the Israeli Defense Ministry. We have our own government and Ministry of Health, and they are making huge efforts to get the vaccine.” Another official said the PA had vaccines from other sources with the help of the World Health Organization.

When the Palestinians did ask for vaccines in January 2021, the Israeli government shipped 100 doses to the PA. The Palestinian Ministry of Health denied, however, that it had received any vaccines from Israel and continued to insist it would take responsibility for inoculations. Nevertheless, Israel agreed to deliver another 5,000 vaccines for healthcare workers in the West Bank and provided hundreds to the Gaza Strip.

While the PA rejects Israeli help, a group of 10 Israeli, Palestinian and international health and “human rights” organizations called for Israel to provide vaccinations to the Palestinians. This is typical of the hypocrisy of such organizations, several of which support the anti-Semitic BDS movement and have campaigned against any contact with Israel because it would signify normalization with a nation they believe should not exist.

Vaccines for Palestinians

Critics pilloried Israel for not vaccinating Palestinians in the West Bank and complained that Israel was not providing them to terrorists held in Israeli jails. As in the United States and elsewhere, prisoners were not given the highest priority for vaccination. Nevertheless, by the end of January 2020, Israel had begun vaccinating Palestinian prisoners while millions of Israeli citizens were still waiting for their shots.

The attacks on Israel have continued, ignoring that the PA struck deals in January with four vaccine companies that would provide enough vaccines for 70 percent of the population with the WHO expected to provide doses for most of the rest. In early February, the PA received 10,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine. The day before Israel delivered 2,000 vaccines to the West Bank.

The PA only shipped vaccines to Gaza (with Israeli permission) on February 17, 2021. Some Palestinians were concerned Hamas would use them for its leaders rather than those intended – dialysis patients and people undergoing transplants, followed by medical workers.

On February 19, 2021, officials from Israel’s Health Ministry met with their counterparts in Ramallah. “Understanding that Israel and the Palestinians live in one area and that an outbreak of COVID-19 among the Palestinian Authority may also affect the infection rate among Israeli residents, senior ministry officials visited with the PA Health Ministry and received a briefing on the coronavirus situation in the PA, morbidity data and the epidemiological investigations that are taking place,” the ministry said in a statement.

The PA Health Ministry subsequently announced it had reached an agreement with the Israeli Health Ministry to vaccinate 100,000 Palestinians who work in Israel. On February 10, 2021, Magen David Adom (MDA) began to vaccinate these workers.

On February 22, 2021, Israel opened a center at the Qalandiyah checkpoint to enable East Jerusalem residents who cannot enter Israel to get vaccinated. Haaretz reported Magen David Adom has initiated a  vaccination campaign in predominantly Arab East Jerusalem to address the high rate of infection there. 

The prime minister’s office discloseed on February 23, 2021, that Israel provided vaccines for medical staff in the PA and also planned to donate limited quantities to Honduras, Guatemala, and the Czech Republic. The donation to allies was subsequently suspeneded after opposition from inside the government and the decision of the attorney general to review whether the prime minister had the authority to make the decision on his own.

In March, Tel Aviv University began vaccinating more than 400 international students, including Palestinians.

While critics continued to assail Israel for not vaccinating all Palestinians, the PA was receiving vaccines from Israel, Russia, and the UAE. At the end of March, China donated100,000 doses of its vaccine. 

The critics have also been silent regarding the way the PA has been distributing the vaccine. One Palestinian American raised the issue in a tweet: “Palestinians are exposing corrupt practices by senior PA officials distributing COVID-19 vaccines among themselves & their families. Ignoring at risk Palestinians altogether. Organized efforts r underway to expose these practices and inform donors like EU & US (@Elsalameen, March 1, 2021)

Double Standards

While Israel continues to be criticized for prioritizing vaccinating its citizens over the Palestinians, Italy blocked the export of vaccine doses to Australia in early March 2021 due to supply shortages in the EU, and France was considering taking similar action to ensure it has enough vaccines to meet domestic demands. Similarly, President Joe Biden said in March, “So we’re going to start off making sure Americans are taken care of first, but then we're then going to try to help the rest of the world.”

Vaccine R&D Cooperation

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem in March 2021 to sign an agreement to create a joint fund for the research, development, and production of vaccines.

Frederiksen said the three countries “have been working very closely together” since the start of the pandemic and that “all have promising research that could pave the way for [a] next-generation platform.” She added, the three countries “would like also to explore possible cooperation on clinical trials.”

Palestinian Spreaders?

Palestinians are potentially spreading the virus inside Israel due to their failure to abide by health guidelines when visiting the Temple Mount. Thousands gather each week, especially on Friday, many without masks or making any effort to maintain the required social distance. They may infect each other as well as many others when they return to their neighborhoods.

“The Temple Mount has become a hotbed of COVID infection at a level that is hard to grasp,” notes Nadav Shragai. “When we add the crowded housing conditions in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, where people continue to gather and law enforcement is virtually nonexistent, we get a chain of infection that kills Jews and Arabs alike.”

In February 2021, Israel wanted to open a coronavirus vaccination station in the Temple Mount area, but the request was rejected by Abbas who didn’t want to give Jews access to the area. Israel then suggested that the vaccinations be administered by Arab Israeli paramedics dressed in clothes that bear no markings of Israeli medical establishments. That offer was also turned down.

Deal For Vaccine Exchange Falls Through

Israel proved to be the most successful country in vaccinating its population. As of early June 2021, nearly 60% of Israelis were fully vaccinated.

On June 18, 2021, Israel agreed to send 1.4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to the PA in exchange for receiving a similar number of doses from the PA in October when it is expected to receive a shipment. Shortly after the deal was announced, however, the PA cancelled it because the health minister said the vaccines were going to expire too soon for them to be administered. The PA had already received 90,000 doses but returned them to Israel. The decision was particularly ironic given that Israel was condemned for a year for not doing more to help the Palestinians deal with the pandemic.

The leaders of the Democratic Reform Movement of Fatah led by Mohammed Dahlan accused Israel of the “largest attempted murder in Palestinian history.” They claimed that half a million Palestinian lives were endangered by the PA agreeing to accept vaccines from Israel that were going to expire in June.

As of July 2021, more than five months after the arrival of the first vaccines, 336,300 doses had been donated for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. Disinformation and conspiracy theories have led to widespread hesitancy to get vaccinated. Only about 98,000, less than 5% of Gazans had received a shot. By the end of August, that number grew to 18%; 37% of eligible West Bank residents had at least one dose.

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