The Israel Prison Service said Sunday it began vaccinating all incarcerated people against COVID-19, including Palestinians, following calls from rights groups, Palestinian officials and Israel’s attorney general.
Israel has given at least one vaccine dose to more than two million of its citizens, a pace widely described as the world’s fastest per capita.
But Israel faced harsh criticism when Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said Palestinian prisoners would be the last to get inoculated.
Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit wrote to Ohana condemning the comment as “tainted with illegality,” Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper reported.
Israeli and global rights groups, including Amnesty International, as well as the Palestine Liberation Organization have also issued public calls for Israel to vaccinate the estimated 4,400 Palestinians held in its jails.
According to the Palestinian Prisoners’ Club, about 250 Palestinians in Israeli prisons have tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced last week that the first vaccine doses would be distributed to prisons over the coming days.
The prison service issued a statement Sunday saying 20 detainees had been given an initial dose of the vaccine, without specifying whether they were Israelis or Palestinians.
Earlier on Sunday it had said, “following the vaccination of staff... the vaccination of detainees will begin in prisons in accordance with medical and operational protocol established by the Prison Service.”
A prison service spokesperson told AFP the directive applied to “all prisoners, without distinction.”
The Palestinian Prisoners’ Club said in a statement that three Palestinian prisoners had been vaccinated.
Human Rights Watch on Sunday called on Israel to provide vaccinations for the 2.8 million Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the two million Palestinians in Israeli-blockaded Gaza.
The group’s Israel and Palestine director Omar Shakir particularly criticized the practice of vaccinating Jewish settlers in the West Bank, but not their Palestinian neighbors.
“Nothing can justify today’s reality in parts of the West Bank, where people on one side of the street are receiving vaccines, while those on the other do not, based on whether they’re Jewish or Palestinian,” Shakir said.
“Everyone in the same territory should have equitable access to the vaccine, regardless of their ethnicity.”
The Palestinian Authority has said it has signed contracts with four vaccine providers, including the makers of Russia’s Sputnik V.
The PA said it expects to have sufficient doses to vaccinate 70 percent of the Palestinian population, in both the West Bank and Gaza, with doses expected by mid-March.