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As Palestinians Clamor for Vaccine, Their Leaders Divert Doses to Favored Few

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The vast majority of Palestinians living in the occupied territories have yet to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, setting off a rancorous debate about whether Israel has a duty to vaccinate Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

But among Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, questions are now being asked of their own leadership, which has been accused of siphoning some of the few doses allocated for Palestinians and distributing them to the senior ranks of the ruling party, allies in the media and even to family members of top dignitaries.

Like many governments worldwide, the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited control over parts of the occupied territories, has officially prioritized its senior administrative leadership and frontline health workers, as well as people who come into regular contact with the authority’s president and prime minister.

But in secret, the authority has diverted some of the thousands of vaccines it has received to some senior members of the ruling party in the West Bank who have no formal role in government, according to two senior Palestinian officials and a senior official from the party, Fatah, who all spoke on condition of anonymity.

Vaccines have also been secretly given to top figures at major news outlets run by the authority, according to one of the senior Palestinian officials and two employees at those outlets. Family members of certain government officials and Fatah leaders were also given the vaccines, the senior official and a former government official said.

Already frustrated at their exclusion from Israel’s world-leading vaccination program, ordinary Palestinians now accuse their leaders of hoarding some of the relatively few vaccines the authority has obtained, even amid a spike in infections and tightened restrictions.

“Of course it’s understandable and acceptable that the president, prime minister and ministers take the vaccination before others — this is the case everywhere in the world,” said Hasan Ayoub, the chairman of the political science department at An Najah University in Nablus. “But there’s absolutely no justification for giving the very small number of vaccines we have to other people close to power at the expense of those who most need them.”

Several government officials did not respond to requests for comment on the accusations.

In public statements, the Health Ministry did not admit to any wrongdoing. It has acknowledged receiving 12,000 vaccines — 10,000 from Russia and 2,000 from Israel. Of those, it says 2,000 were sent to the Gaza Strip, which is under the de facto authority of Hamas, the militant group, and 200 to the royal court in Jordan, where some Palestinian leaders live. And of the remaining 9,800, 90 percent were given to frontline health workers, the ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

The ministry said the remainder were given to officials in the presidency and prime ministry; election officials; some international embassies; and members of the national soccer team as well as roughly 100 students who needed the vaccine to travel.

But the ministry’s explanation appears to have convinced few people. The ministry’s own statements also contained inconsistencies — one mentioned the vaccines sent to Jordan, while a subsequent one omitted that detail without explaining why.

Jehad Harb, a senior researcher at AMAN, a Palestinian anti-corruption organization, lashed out at the government in a column, saying its distribution of doses to questionable groups adds to other lapses in the government’s fight against the coronavirus.

“This government needs to leave the government headquarters and the prime ministry because it has filled the country with failure,” he wrote.

On Monday, several Palestinian civil society groups issued a joint criticism of the government and demanded that it establish an investigative committee to look into the matter and that it publish the names and workplaces of those who received inoculations.

Even if the authority distributed the vaccines according to strict criteria, the overwhelming majority of Palestinians would still be forced to wait.

“This is the primary problem,” Mr. Ayoub said. “The vaccines we have aren’t even sufficient to cover the highest priority groups.”

World Health Organization officials said they expect Palestinians to receive 37,440 Pfizer-BioNTech doses and 168,000 AstraZeneca doses supplied through the global-sharing initiative Covax over the coming three months. Palestinian officials in the West Bank said a larger order of 2 million AstraZeneca vaccines had been delayed because of global competition and logistical complications, but they said they hope to receive the first shipment of them in the coming weeks.

Health officials in Gaza said that they had received 20,000 doses from the United Arab Emirates and 2,000 doses from the Palestinian Authority.

The public anger about the authority’s distribution of vaccines followed weeks of criticism of Israel, with human rights groups and others saying the country bears responsibility for vaccinating Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

The rights groups say Israel has a duty to provide Palestinians with the same access to vaccines as its own citizens receive, citing international law that sets out the responsibilities of occupying powers. But supporters of Israel’s policies contend that the Palestinians have responsibility for their own health services, including vaccination programs, citing the Oslo Accords signed in the 1990s.

On Sunday, Israel took its first step to provide a significant number of vaccines to Palestinians in the West Bank who tend to come in contact with Israelis: Authorities announced that Israeli medical teams planned to inoculate more than 100,000 Palestinian laborers with permits to work in Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Once those doses are distributed, the vast majority of Palestinian adults will still be without vaccinations.

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