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Israel Gives Vaccine to Far-Off Allies, as Palestinians Wait


JERUSALEM — The Israeli government has pledged to send thousands of spare coronavirus vaccines to foreign allies, reigniting a debate about Israel’s responsibilities to people closer to home: Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

On Tuesday, the governments of the Czech Republic and Honduras confirmed that Israel had promised them each 5,000 vaccine doses manufactured by Moderna. The Israeli news media reported that Hungary and Guatemala would be sent a similar number, but the Hungarian and Israeli governments declined to comment, while the Guatemalan government did not respond to a request for comment.

The donations are the latest example of a new expression of soft power: vaccine diplomacy, in which countries rich in vaccines seek to reward or sway those that have little access to them.

Jockeying for influence in Asia, China and India have donated thousands of vaccine doses to their neighbors. The United Arab Emirates has done the same for allies like Egypt. And last week, Israel even promised to buy tens of thousands of doses on behalf of the Syrian government, a longtime foe, in exchange for the return of an Israeli civilian detained in Syria.

The vaccines allocated on Tuesday were given without conditions, but they tacitly reward recent gestures from the receiving countries that implicitly accept Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians consider their capital. Guatemala has moved its embassy to Jerusalem, while Honduras has pledged to do so. Hungary has set up a trade mission in Jerusalem, while the Czech Republic has promised to open a diplomatic office there.

Israel has given at least one shot of the two-dose, Pfizer-manufactured vaccine to just over half its own population of nine million — including to people living in Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories — making it the world leader in vaccine rollouts. That has left the Israeli government able to bolster its international relationships with its surplus supply of Moderna vaccines.

But the move has angered Palestinians because it suggests that Israel’s allies are of greater priority than the Palestinians living under Israeli control in the occupied territories, almost all of whom have yet to receive a vaccine.

Israel has pledged at least twice as many doses to faraway countries as it has so far promised to the nearly five million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Israeli government says that the Palestinian Authority was given responsibility for organizing its own health care system in the 1990s, after the signing of the Oslo Accords that gave the Palestinian leadership limited autonomy in parts of the occupied territories.

Israel has given 2,000 vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority, and promised 3,000 more — token figures, given the size of the Palestinian population. And while Israel has hinted that more may come, it has yet to formalize any details.

“A few weeks ago there were question marks about whether we had enough vaccines for our own people,” said Mark Regev, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Now that it appears we do, we can be more forthcoming with our neighbors.”

Mr. Regev added: “The virus won’t stop at the border and we have a very strong interest that the Palestinians can be on top of this.”

But on Tuesday evening, an Israeli security official said that the military department that coordinates between Israel and the Palestinian leadership had not yet received government authorization to deliver more vaccines to the Palestinian Authority.

In any case, human rights watchdogs say that Israel should organize a systematic vaccine program in the occupied territories, rather than sporadically deliver spares a few thousand at a time. They cite the Fourth Geneva Convention, which obliges an occupying power to coordinate with the local authorities to maintain public health within an occupied territory, including during epidemics.

The watchdog groups also note that the Israeli government not only controls all imports to the West Bank and Gaza but also, in recent submissions to the International Criminal Court, disputed Palestinian claims to sovereign statehood.

“It is a system of oppression,” said Salem Barahmeh, executive director at the Palestine Institute for Public Diplomacy, a Ramallah-based advocacy group.

“It says a lot about a regime,” Mr. Barahmeh added, “that it is willing to send vaccines halfway across the world, potentially for a quid pro quo, and not offer the vaccine to the millions of Palestinians who live under the Israeli occupation.”

Reporting was contributed by Gabby Sobelman and Adam Rasgon.



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