Analysis: Israel hits 5 million vaccine shots and reopens economy

Israel delivered its five millionth vaccine jab on Monday as the country began a significant easing of covid-19 restrictions ahead of this month’s general election. This week also saw the official start of a programme to vaccinate 120,000 Palestinians who work in Israel. The Jewish state continues to lead the world in per capita terms for the number of people inoculated against the coronavirus.

What happened

  • Janet Lavi-Azulay, a 34-year-old pregnant woman, became the five millionth Israeli to receive a jab against the coronavirus this week. Health minister Yuli Edelstein joked it was unclear whether the vaccination also constituted dose number 5,000,0001. Health Ministry figures indicated that, of the five million Israelis who have received their first jab, nearly 3.8 million have also had the second dose.
  • In all, over 52 percent of its population of 9.3 million has received one dose and almost 40 percent two doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Nearly 90 percent of the country’s over-50 population has either been vaccinated or recovered from the coronavirus.
  • Netanyahu promised to vaccinate the entire Israeli adult population by the end of next month, claiming that, at that point, “we are out of the coronavirus crisis”. “It is a world achievement,” he added.
  • But Israel’s coronavirus tsar, Nachman Ash, sounded a more cautious note, suggesting: “It is not over yet. We must continue to be careful, keeping social distance and wearing masks. We have a way until it is over.”
  • Leaks from the Israeli cabinet in January suggested that the Health Ministry director-general, Chezy Levy, said the country would reach herd immunity when the combined number of those who have been vaccinated and those who have been infected with, or recovered from, the coronavirus, hits five million.
  • Last week, Denmark and Austria signed an agreement with Israel establishing a joint fund to research, develop and produce new vaccines.

Unlocking again

Sunday saw a major reopening of the economy as Israel emerges from its third national lockdown. Restaurants and coffee shops are permitted to reopen their doors, albeit subject to restrictions, while gatherings of up to 20 people inside and 50 people outside are now allowed. Hotels can operate at 50 percent capacity and cultural and sporting events can go ahead, with 500 people indoors and 750 people in outdoor spaces. In low and medium-infection areas, pupils in grades 7-10 went back to school. Restrictions on Israelis who were trapped abroad and unable to return home are being eased, although foreign nationals are allowed to travel to the country only in exceptional circumstances and with permission granted in advance. The Health Ministry had indicated some more restrictions may be imposed for Pesach.

Come fly with me

On Monday, the Israeli national airline, El Al, began rapid antigen testing for passengers who have not yet been vaccinated. The pilot programme was introduced for a flight leaving Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport bound for New York. Nearly half of those boarding the flight – most of them children – were required to take the test in order to fly. Performed via a nasal swab, the results of the rapid test are available within 15-20 minutes. Masks remained mandatory during the flight for all passengers.

Israeli-Arab concerns 

Despite the success of the vaccination programme, there are concerns about a lower take-up rate for vaccinations among Israeli-Arabs, who constitute around 20 percent of the country’s population:

  • On Sunday, the Health Ministry released figures showing that 989,000 Israelis over the age of 16 had not yet received a single vaccination shot. Some 39 percent of these individuals are Israeli-Arabs.
  • Close to 70 percent of Israeli-Arabs have received at least one jab against a national average of 84 percent among all Israelis.
  • The 10 Israeli towns with the lowest vaccination rates are Bedouin towns in the south of the country.
  • Netanyahu met this week with Bedouin representatives in the Negev as part of the government’s effort to boost vaccination rates.

Passport to freedom

At the end of last month, Israel released an app which shows if people have been vaccinated or if they are presumed to have immunity having contracted the virus. Although shopping malls and museums have opened their doors to all, a “green pass” is required to access certain venues such as gyms, hotels, theatres, and dining indoors in restaurants and bars. The Knesset has granted local authorities access to the personal details of those eligible for vaccination who have not yet received a shot, so they be contacted and persuaded to come forward. However, the Supreme Court has temporarily halted implementation of the legislation citing potential “harming of the constitutional right to privacy” guaranteed in Israel’s quasi-constitutional Basic Laws.

Palestinian workers start receiving jabs

Monday saw the official launch of a programme to vaccinate 120,000 Palestinians who work in Israel.

  • The drive, which is being led by the Magen David Adom (Israel’s version of the Red Cross), has seen vaccination sites established at eight crossings between Israel and the West Bank. Four more sites in industrial centres in the West Bank are also being opened. All Palestinians who work in Israel or in Israeli settlements are eligible.
  • Palestinian workers in Israel have been hard hit by the stop-start lockdowns, often finding themselves unable to return home to their West Bank homes when the border is suddenly closed. Israeli employers are required to find appropriate shelter for Palestinian workers and some have been housed in hotels, although others have complained that the quality of accommodation has been variable.
  • “It is in our health and economic interest, as we live in a single epidemiological region, and we all need to take part in the effort to stop the spread of covid-19 in the region,” the director of COGAT, Israeli’s military liaison with the Palestinians, suggested as the programme began.
  • By yesterday, 18,000 Palestinian workers had been vaccinated, including those given a jab in the pilot programme which commenced earlier this month.

West Bank lockdown

A surge in coronavirus infections in the West Bank has seen the Palestinian Authority tighten lockdown restrictions as hospital capacity in Ramallah and Bethlehem comes under increasing strain.

  • The PA, which has repeatedly claimed to have signed vaccine deals with major suppliers, has so far received 2,000 doses from Israel – with more pledged – and 10,000 doses of the Russian-made Sputnik vaccine. Last week, the Palestinian prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, said a $10m batch of vaccine doses would be arriving in days. The WHO’s COVAX programme, which is designed to assist low and middle-income countries, is also due to supply the PA.
  • Palestinians living in East Jerusalem are being vaccinated under Israel’s programme.
  • The Israeli government has faced criticism from some human rights groups – both domestically and internationally – which say that, under the Geneva Convention, it is obliged to vaccinate Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
  • Israel argues that, under the terms of the Oslo Accords, responsibility for health in general – and vaccines in particular – falls to the PA. The accords suggest the tackling pandemics is a shared responsibility.
  • Alan Baker, a former Israeli Foreign Ministry legal adviser who helped draft the accords, told the Jerusalem Post last month that Israel isn’t legally obliged to vaccinate Palestinians, but he believes it has “a moral and epidemiological responsibility” to them. “If they are ill, then we are ill. It is in our interest to help them.”
  • The row has been intensified by reports that Netanyahu has personally decided to supply some of Israel’s surplus vaccines to a small number of friendly countries “in return for things we already have received”. Legal officials halted the moves two weeks ago, although the prime minister appears set on reviving them.

What happens next

Many Israeli commentators have linked Sunday’s reopening of the economy to the general election which takes place in less than two weeks. “It’s impossible to separate the hasty, large-scale reopening of the economy and the schools at the start of this week, following months of lockdowns that caused major economic and psychological damage, from the Knesset election that will take place on March 23. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coronavirus policy is meant primarily to create an appearance of returning to normalcy,” argued Haaretz columnist Amos Harel. “Internal polls by Netanyahu’s Likud party … show that voters are less enthusiastic than expected about the vaccines. Netanyahu would undoubtedly have preferred a ceremony at which Israelis thanked him personally for obtaining the vaccines, but that won’t happen.”