Israeli-Palestinian Covid-19 vaccine deal collapses amid expiry-date dispute, Middle East News & Top Stories

JERUSALEM (NYTIMES) – For months, rights campaigners have argued that Israel has a moral and legal duty to vaccinate millions of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. For months, Israel resisted that argument, vaccinating only about 130,000 Palestinians with permits to work in Israel.

On Friday morning (June 18), the new Israeli government went some way toward answering its critics, announcing a deal to supply between 1 million and 1.4 million vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority. In return, the authority was to give Israel the same number of doses once its own supply arrived in the fall from Pfizer-BioNTech.

But just hours later, the authority ripped up the agreement, sending back about 100,000 doses that Israel delivered earlier in the day, amid a public disagreement between the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships about whether the vaccines were too close to their expiration date.

A spokesman for the authority, Mr Ibrahim Melhem, said that the specifications of the doses did not conform to the agreement and that they were too close to their expiry date to be administered in time.

The authority will instead wait for a direct delivery of 4 million new vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech later in the year, Mr Melhem said.

An Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorised to speak publicly, said that the initial batch of doses would expire at the start of July and said that would give enough time for Palestinian health workers to administer them.

The official added that the authority had been aware of the vaccines’ expiry date before agreeing to their delivery and said the authority had scrapped the deal only because it had been criticised by Palestinians for agreeing to receive vaccines perceived to be of poor quality.

The official also said that none of the remaining doses would have been delivered less than two weeks before their expiry date.

Negotiations over the deal began in secret several months ago, before Mr Naftali Bennett’s new government succeeded that of Benjamin Netanyahu, who was replaced by a narrow vote in Parliament on Sunday.

The announcement follows months of debate about whether Israel, where a successful vaccine campaign has created a largely post-pandemic reality, has a responsibility to provide vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, where infection rates are far higher.

In February and March, Israel gave vaccines to more than 100,000 Palestinians who work as day labourers in Israel, but it resisted vaccinating millions of other Palestinians living under some form of Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza.

Instead, the Palestinian Authority ordered several hundred thousand vaccine doses from the global sharing initiative, Covax, and several million from Pfizer-BioNTech. Separately, the United Arab Emirates donated tens of thousands of doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine to Palestinians in Gaza.

Israeli officials said the Oslo Accords – the interim agreements between Israel and Palestinian leaders signed in the 1990s – give the Palestinian Authority responsibility for its own health care system.

But rights campaigners noted that other parts of the Oslo Accords require Israel to work with the Palestinian leadership during an epidemic, while the Fourth Geneva Convention obliges an occupying power to coordinate with the local authorities to maintain public health within an occupied territory, including during epidemics.

Israel controls all imports to the West Bank, most of which is under full Israeli control, and shares control of imports to Gaza with Egypt.

Those who accepted Israel’s official position about the donations said the authority’s refusal to accept the vaccines had dented claims that Israel was to blame for the slow vaccination rate among Palestinians.

But those who believed the Palestinian position said Israel had acted in bad faith by making the authority an offer that it had no choice but to refuse.