The Coronavirus vaccination programme has been a huge community effort of which Israelis are rightly proud. But not everyone is looking on with admiration…
There’s an election on the horizon, Covid cases are rising, you are in your third national lockdown, the economy is in freefall and the rest of the world wants you to give your precious jabs to the people who literally bomb your citizens on a monthly basis.
This is the interesting situation Israel finds itself in, even as it wins praise for its astonishingly fast rate of vaccinations which is by far and away the most successful on the planet.
Tiny plucky Israel (which is the size of Wales) had hoped to be the nation that created the world’s first Coronavirus vaccination. When they didn’t happen, they went for the next best thing; aiming to be the first fully vaccinated nation with everyone aged over 16 of its 9million population – of those who are willing to have it – vaccinated by March.
They started in late December and already more than 20 per cent of the entire population has been vaccinated – including 72 per cent of those over 60. It has handed out 24 jabs per 100 people – the UK, which has the best record of vaccinating in Europe – is on relatively measly 4.5 injections per 100. It is no wonder that the world, including the UK, is looking at Israel and how it can emulate its success.
To look at the how we should firstly consider the why. In March, Israelis go to the polls for their fourth election in three years. The choice is basically Benjamin Netanyahu, who has led the country since 2009, and his Likud party, or a coalition of other parties whose main aim is to oust him. In the last three elections the difference between them has been so paper thin that no Government has held.
Netanyahu has been criticised for his handling of the pandemic (so far there have been 3,689 deaths) so it is vital – career-saving – for him that the vaccinations go as well as they can. So, he’s put himself front and centre of the vaccination drive, including publicly having the first vaccination. He’s been touring the country – from secular Jewish areas to religious ones, from Arab neighbourhoods to Druze ones – to encourage everyone to get vaccinated.
He is helped by an extremely high-tech health system he inherited. Israel’s version of the NHS is split into four health providers which citizens get to choose between – choice tends to depend on which health provider has more resources nearest to you. All Israelis, except for the unemployed, pay a health tax which goes straight into making these four health organisations both well-funded and more dexterous than our creaky NHS.
Perhaps even more importantly for the speed of the vaccines, every Israeli citizen carries their entire medical history on a chip on their identity card. This means they can show up to any GP, any pharmacist, any vaccine clinic, and with a swipe of the card (and an individual password) their entire medical history can be seen. While NHS vaccinators are tied up in mountains of paperwork, this is a paperless system. Ditto for invitations to get vaccinated. In the UK people are being told to wait for letters; in Israel they get a text message inviting them to have a vaccine with a time. If that text message isn’t responded to, they are called.
Less red tape means that when there are jabs left over – and once the Pfizer ones have been defrosted, they have to be used quickly – anyone can show up (there are often queues outside vaccination centres), show their card, and be jabbed so none of it goes to waste.
And then there is the Israeli can-do attitude. More than 70-years of living in an almost permanent warlike setting means that this is a nation which knows how to move nimbly in an emergency. It came up with the idea of mass vaccination centres, drive through vaccination centres and people are even being jabbed in shopping centres. Small vans have been converted into huge deep freeze units to transfer the jabs around the country in pizza delivery sized boxes. Health professionals are giving up all their spare time to help in this fight against the virus. This is a country which, like our own, has really suffered with Covid and they are desperate to get out of the cycle of lockdowns.
These things combined have helped Israel to get their hands on the vaccines that everyone on the planet wants. Netanyahu has been on a complete charm offensive with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla. Much has been made in Israel about Bourla’s Jewish heritage – his grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Greece, and two thirds of their community were wiped out. It’s a lovely story about why he would go out of his way to help the Jewish state (which earlier this week presented him with an honorary doctorate) but perhaps more pertinently for the pharmaceutical company, Israel presents itself as the biggest mass testing site there has ever been for their vaccine.
Netanyahu has agreed to share data with Pfizer examining exactly what happens next to every person who has a jab. Although their names won’t be used, information about how they react to the jab is vital not only because it is a totally new vaccine but also for the next stage of fighting the pandemic and any more mutant strains.
Israel is also said to be paying at least twice as much for the jab as Europeans. But the cost of lockdown has presumably been weighed up against the cost of getting the vaccines in as quickly as possible. Israel has also started getting jabs from Moderna and the Oxford AstraZeneca one; the more jabs the merrier.
This has been a huge community effort of which Israelis are rightly proud. But not everyone is looking on with admiration.
The country has come in for criticism for not vaccinating Palestinians and that needs to be examined in a little detail; it’s not a black and white issue but one with endless shades of grey.
Arab Israelis in Israel (around 20 per cent of the population) are being vaccinated along with their fellow citizens. Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails will be vaccinated at the same rate as Jewish ones. Palestinians living in East Jerusalem have also been offered the vaccine. The difference is in the areas of the West Bank controlled by the Palestinian Authority, and Gaza, controlled by Hamas – although they are lumped together, they are very different too.
The West Bank (on the West Bank of the River Jordan) has a degree of self-rule. Certain areas are completely Palestinian controlled, others are under the military jurisdiction of Israel. Palestinians from this area come in and out of Israel to work. Although there are frequent tensions, there is a degree of peace between the Israel and the PA, and they work together behind the scenes on policing and security.
Israel disengaged completely from Gaza, which also has a border in Egypt, in 2005 but retains control over its airspace and territorial waters. In 2006 Gazans voted for Hamas, a terrorist organisation which has vowed to wipe Israel out, as their leaders. Since then, there has been a state of almost constant aggression on the border. Rockets are regularly fired at Israeli towns from Gaza – and often the retaliation is swift and brutal.
The Geneva Convention’s Article 56 states that an occupier has the duty to do what it can to ‘combat the spread of contagious diseases and epidemics’. But the Oslo Accords say the Palestinians should be in charge of most aspects of civilian life including their healthcare and the Palestinians have always sorted their own vaccines.
To say there is huge distrust between Israel and the two Palestinians organisations would be an understatement. To ask for help from the Israelis is almost considered akin to being in collaboration with the enemy. Meanwhile, Israel’s priority, like all other nations, is vaccinating its own citizens first.
It is hard to know that if Palestinian people, steeped from school age in antisemitic theories about Jews, would even be happy to take vaccines from them? Israel has sent 100 vaccine doses to the PA as a ‘humanitarian gesture’ but the Palestinians won’t even admit having receiving them – let alone who they were given to.
But morals come into it too. A growing clamour from organisations always willing to attack Israel has been joined by some Jewish diaspora voices saying Israel has a moral incentive to vaccinate Palestinians, even if it doesn’t have a legal one.
That will become more pressing as Palestinians struggle to get their hands on any vaccines. They were hoping for vaccines from Russia but the authorities in Moscow have now held some of those back as they want to ensure there is enough stock for their own citizens. The World Health Organisation is also meant to be sourcing vaccines for the Palestinians, but so far has only agreed to come up with 20 per cent of the required doses that will be needed and that won’t be until March. Only AstraZeneca with the Oxford vaccine has agreed to ship some to Palestine – but also not until March.
The Palestinians in the West Bank have now put in a semi formal request for the vaccine from Israel for its frontline health workers. Israel has agreed to help but only once it has sorted out its own most vulnerable citizens – there is very little internal disagreement with this. As it is, they might have finished vaccinating most of their citizens before the first vaccines promised from other countries arrive.
The Covid crisis has seen borders shut, flights cancelled and every nation fend for itself. It’s hard to work out why people think Israel should behave any differently in this complex situation. And yet it often seems easier to attack Israel than actually examine the complexity of it.