Israeli-Palestinian vaccine deal collapses over expiry date dispute

Palestinian Authority returns 100,000 doses to Israel, saying they are too close to expiry

A Palestinian medical worker preparing a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a healthcare centre in the West Bank city of Dura this month.
A Palestinian medical worker preparing a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a healthcare centre in the West Bank city of Dura this month.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

JERUSALEM • 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, the new Israeli government went some way towards answering its critics, announcing a deal to supply at least one million vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

In return, the authority was to give Israel the same number of doses once its own supply arrived from Pfizer-BioNTech.

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

A spokesman for the PA, Mr Ibrahim Melhem, said 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 PA will instead wait for a direct delivery of four million new doses from Pfizer-BioNTech later this year, Mr Melhem said.

An Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the initial batch of doses would expire early next month, which gave enough time for Palestinian health workers to administer them.

The official added that the PA had been aware of the vaccines' expiry date before agreeing to their delivery and said the deal was scrapped 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 government ousted that of Mr Benjamin Netanyahu in a narrow vote in Parliament.

The announcement follows months of debate about whether Israel, where a successful vaccine campaign has created a largely post-coronavirus reality, has a responsibility to provide vaccines to Palestinians.

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 Strip, where infection rates are far higher.

Instead, the PA 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 have said the Oslo Accords - the interim agreements between Israel and Palestinian leaders signed in the 1990s - give the PA responsibility for its own healthcare 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 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.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 20, 2021, with the headline 'Israeli-Palestinian vaccine deal collapses over expiry date dispute'. Subscribe