JERUSALEM – The Israeli government has pledged to send thousands of replacement coronavirus vaccines to foreign allies, reigniting a debate about Israel’s responsibilities to those closest to home – Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.
On Tuesday, the governments of the Czech Republic and Honduras confirmed that Israel had promised them 5,000 doses of vaccines manufactured by Moderna. Israeli media reported that Hungary and Guatemala would receive a similar number, but the Hungarian and Israeli governments declined to comment, while the Guatemalan government did not respond to a request for comment.
Donations are the latest example of a new expression of soft power: vaccine diplomacy, in which countries rich in vaccines seek to reward or influence those who have little access to them.
Vying for influence in Asia, China and India have donated thousands of doses of vaccines to their neighbors. The UAE has done the same with allies like Egypt. And last week, Israel even promised to buy tens of thousands of doses on behalf of the Syrian government, a longtime enemy, in exchange for the return of an Israeli civilian detained in Syria.
The vaccines assigned Tuesday were delivered unconditionally, but tacitly reward recent gestures by recipient 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 established a trade mission in Jerusalem, while the Czech Republic has promised to open a diplomatic office there.
Israel has administered at least one injection of the two-dose vaccine manufactured by Pfizer to just over half of its own population of nine million, including people living in Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, making it the world leader in the launch of vaccines. That has left the Israeli government able to strengthen its international relations with its surplus supply of Moderna vaccines.
But the move has angered Palestinians because it suggests that Israel’s allies are of higher priority than Palestinians living under Israeli control in the occupied territories, nearly all of whom have yet to receive a vaccine.
Israel has promised at least twice as many doses to distant countries as it has promised so far to the nearly five million Palestinians living in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli government says the Palestinian Authority was assigned responsibility for organizing its own health care system in the 1990s, after the signing of the Oslo Accords that gave Palestinian leaders limited autonomy in parts of the occupied territories.
Israel has given 2,000 doses of vaccines to the Palestinian Authority and promised 3,000 more, symbolic 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 questions about whether we had enough vaccines for our own people,” said Mark Regev, an adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Now that we seem to do it, we can be more outgoing with our neighbors.”
Mr. Regev added: “The virus will not stop at the border and we have a great interest in the Palestinians being able to be aware of this.”
But on Tuesday night, an Israeli security official said that the military department that coordinates between Israel and the Palestinian leadership had not yet received authorization from the government to deliver more vaccines to the Palestinian Authority.
In any case, human rights watchdogs say Israel should organize a systematic vaccination program in the occupied territories, rather than sporadically handing out spare parts of a few thousand at a time. They cite the Fourth Geneva Convention, which requires an occupying power to coordinate with local authorities to maintain public health within an occupied territory, even during epidemics.
The watchdog groups also point out that the Israeli government not only controls all imports to the West Bank and Gaza, but has also, in recent submissions to the International Criminal Court, questioned Palestinian claims of a sovereign state.
“It is a system of oppression,” said Salem Barahmeh, executive director of the Palestinian Institute for Public Diplomacy, a Ramallah-based advocacy group.
“It says a lot about a regime,” Barahmeh added, “that is willing to send vaccines to half the world, potentially for a quid pro quo, and not offer the vaccine to the millions of Palestinians living under the Israeli regime. occupation.”
Gabby Sobelman and Adam Rasgon contributed reporting.