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Covid-19: Israel freezes programme to send vaccines abroad amid legal scrutiny

Bid to garner international goodwill suspended after attorney general said to be seeking clarification about its legality
Palestinians have accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including the Palestinians in its inoculation programme (AFP)

Israel has frozen its programme to send Covid-19 vaccines abroad to buy international goodwill, Defence Minister Benny Gantz said on Thursday, after the initiative came under legal scrutiny.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for donating Covid-19 vaccines to foreign allies, while Palestinians complained that, as an occupying power, Israel should be supplying more to them.

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Israeli public broadcaster Kan, which earlier this week reported that Israel would send small shipments to 19 countries, said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was seeking clarification about the programme.

An official in Netanyahu's office said that after legal questions were raised, Netanyahu's national security adviser had asked Mandelblit to give his opinion.

"I welcome the decision to freeze the transfer of vaccines to other countries," Gantz said on Twitter. 

Gantz is serving in Netanyahu's government while preparing to face off against him in an election next month.

Netanyahu earlier this week defended what has been referred to as "vaccine diplomacy," saying Israel had "unused" Moderna vaccines left over.

"I think it buys goodwill," he told reporters on Wednesday. "I think it is an intelligent decision ... in return for many dividends that we have already received, in many ongoing contacts in many different fields that I will not elaborate about here."

Israel has had one of the world's fastest rollouts of Covid-19 vaccines, with nearly half the population already having received one dose.

But centrist former general Gantz said a decision to give away vaccines must be made in the "proper forums" and it was not up to Netanyahu to take such action on his own.

'Immoral act'

Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called Netanyahu's overseas vaccine shipments "political blackmail and an immoral act," accusing Israel of "exploitation of the humanitarian needs of these countries".

Israel has so far given only 2,000 doses to the Palestinian Authority (PA), arguing that they are responsible for their own healthcare system. 

The occupied West Bank and besieged Gaza Strip are home to 5.2 million Palestinians.

Palestinians have accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including the Palestinians in its inoculation programme.

'Israel is an occupying power and has millions of vaccines. Palestine is the occupied territory and has barely a few thousand'

- Matthias Kennes, MSF

Doctors Without Borders, also known as MSF, criticised Israel on Tuesday for failing to give vaccines to the Palestinians. 

"Israel is an occupying power and has millions of vaccines. Palestine is the occupied territory and has barely a few thousand," said Matthias Kennes, MSF's medical adviser to Palestine.

Israeli officials have said that under the Oslo peace accords, the PA health ministry is responsible for vaccinating people in Gaza and parts of the West Bank where it has limited self-rule.

With around 32,000 vaccine doses in hand to date, the Palestinians launched limited vaccination programmes in the West Bank and Gaza this month, beginning with health workers.

While the PA expects to receive an initial Covax shipment within weeks, the programme is at risk of failing, mainly due to a lack of funds.

Uncontrolled pandemic

The Palestinian territories have one of the lowest testing rates in the Middle East and North Africa, the World Bank said in a report this week. 

The positivity rate in the West Bank is over 21 percent, and in Gaza 29 percent, indicating an uncontrolled spread of the pandemic, the World Bank said.

It has called on Israel to cooperate with the PA and for wealthier countries to donate to ease the pandemic.

The Czech Republic, Guatemala and Honduras, which have all moved their embassies or diplomatic offices to Jerusalem, were to receive coronavirus vaccines from Israel, local media reported on Tuesday. 

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Honduras and the Czech Republic have already confirmed they received shipments before the programme was suspended.

Honduras received 5,000 vaccine doses from Israel on Thursday. 

A video clip of their arrival was tweeted by President Juan Orlando Hernandez with the message "Take heart, Honduras!"

The country has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Jerusalem, bolstering Israel's illegal claims to the city that it regards as its capital but infuriating the Palestinians, who claim the eastern half of the city as the capital of a future state.

Sanders criticism

On Tuesday, Czech Foreign Minister Tomas Petricek said his country had also received several thousand doses from Israel.

The Czech Republic is one of Israel's strongest supporters in the European Union.

Although the Czech Republic supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was last month named in an International Criminal Court pre-trial decision as one of the countries supporting Israel's argument that the court had no jurisdiction over war crimes in the Palestinian territories.

Israel, which has led the world with its fast rollout using the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, is one of a few countries, including India and Russia, engaging in vaccine diplomacy.

US Senator Bernie Sanders on Thursday added his voice to the critics of the Israeli policy, tweeting: "It is outrageous that Netanyahu would use spare vaccines to reward his foreign allies while so many Palestinians in the occupied territories are still waiting."