Israel's health minister announced Thursday the country would vaccinate Palestinian prisoners against COVID-19, after Israel's president said withholding vaccines was against Israel's Jewish and democratic values.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said the prisoners would be vaccinated early next week, on Monday or Tuesday. The minister informed NPR of the decision before making a public announcement.
The decision comes amid a larger debate about whether Israel, which is leading the world in vaccinations per capita, should ensure vaccines for the Palestinian public in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel and Egypt.
About 4,700 Palestinian detainees and prisoners are held in Israeli facilities, accused or convicted of crimes ranging from entering Israel illegally to attacking and killing Israelis.
Palestinian prisoners have contracted the coronavirus, including 30 in a single prison who tested positive Thursday, Israel Prison Services spokeswoman Hana Herbst tells NPR.
"In this case, you're talking about terrorists, but also other criminals," Edelstein says. "There are lots of people together 24/7, and as we all know, this kind of situation sometimes leads to infection."
The International Committee of the Red Cross and rights groups have repeatedly called on Israel to vaccinate Palestinian inmates. But in late December, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is in charge of prisons, instructed prison officials not to do so.
Ohana reportedly objected to vaccinating Palestinian prisoners convicted of attacks on Israelis. He instructed only prison staff to be vaccinated for the time being, excluding all Israeli and Palestinian prisoners, Herbst says.
Human rights groups petitioned Israel's Supreme Court to reverse the ban on Palestinian prisoners. On Monday, Israel's defense minister also called for vaccination of prisoners. On Thursday, President Reuven Rivlin urged the health minister to vaccinate all prisoners.
"Preventing life-saving medical treatment from people in prison — whether due to a sentence imposed on them by the court or due to detention before reaching a verdict — is inconsistent with our values, the values of the Jewish and democratic state," Rivlin wrote in a letter to Edelstein.
Israel has vaccinated a larger share of its population than than any other country. About 20% of the population — including Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of Jerusalem — has been vaccinated.
Edelstein says Israel has also provided vaccines for about 100 Palestinian medical workers in the West Bank. The Palestinian Health Ministry says it requested vaccines for its medical workers but denies Israel supplied any.
Israel is not providing vaccines to the Palestinian public in the West Bank and Gaza.
"The normal policy of every country is to vaccinate its own citizens. That's what they pay taxes for," Edelstein said.
In recent weeks, the Palestinian Authority signed its own deals to receive vaccines for the West Bank and Gaza from a World Health Organization program, as well as from Russia, AstraZeneca and other drugmakers. Vaccines are expected to arrive in the Palestinian territories in the coming months.