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Israel freezes vaccine gifts scheme amid legal uncertainty

News Desk

Agence France-Presse

Jerusalem, Undefined  /  Fri, February 26, 2021  /  05:00 am
Israel freezes vaccine gifts scheme amid legal uncertainty

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a situation assessment meeting regarding the Coronavirus (COVID-2019), at the Health Ministry in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv on Feb. 23, 2020. (AFP/Jack Guez)

Israel has halted its plan to distribute surplus coronavirus vaccines as authorities examined whether it was in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's authority to order the move, the justice ministry said Thursday.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would send a "limited quantity" of vaccines to the Palestinians and several countries, including two that have announced plans to boost their diplomatic presence in Jerusalem.

Late Thursday, the justice ministry said that following requests from the public to look into the issue, "the attorney general was examining the claim that vaccines were transferred to foreign countries without authority."

In a statement, the ministry noted that Israel's National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat had requested the attorney general's legal opinion on the decision to gift the vaccines.

According to the justice ministry, Ben-Shabbat had informed the attorney general that "an order has already been issued to freeze any activity on the topic."

Netanyahu's office had no immediate comment on the matter.

Vaccine diplomacy

Israel has already sent several thousand vaccine doses to the occupied West Bank to inoculate Palestinian Authority medical workers, in a decision approved by the security cabinet and overseen by the attorney general.

Earlier Thursday, Defence Minister Benny Gantz claimed that while the decision to give vaccines to the Palestinian Authority followed "due process" and was in Israel's medical interests, "supplying vaccines to other countries was never broached in relevant forums."

Gantz, who like Netanyahu is facing election in March, said the issue must be first discussed by the security cabinet, claiming the policy was pushed through without the required consultation making it "against the law."

Honduras, which said last year that it would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, is on the list of recipients, sources confirmed to AFP.

The Czech Republic, which plans to open a diplomatic office in Jerusalem next month, said Tuesday it had received 5,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from the Jewish state.

Hungary and Guatemala are also reportedly set to receive vaccines.

Israel has administered the two recommended shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab to more than 3.2 million people, over a third of its population. 

While many countries are struggling with vaccine supply, Israel has avoided shortages since launching inoculations in December.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu said the vaccines to be given were "symbolic numbers" of surpluses that "wouldn't come at the expense of even one vaccine of an Israeli citizen," and bore diplomatic weight.

Most countries maintain embassies in Tel Aviv, pending a resolution of the conflict with the Palestinians, who claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state. 

But Netanyahu, who describes Jerusalem as the Jewish state's "undivided capital", cheers nations that conduct diplomacy with Israel from the disputed city.

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