Israel freezes program to send COVID-19 vaccines abroad amid scrutiny: Minister

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Israel has frozen its program to send COVID-19 vaccines abroad to buy international goodwill, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Thursday, after the initiative came under legal scrutiny.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under fire for donating COVID-19 vaccines to foreign allies, while Palestinians complained that, as an occupying power, Israel should be supplying more to them.

Israeli public broadcaster Kan, which earlier this week reported that Israel would send small shipments to 19 countries, said Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was seeking clarification about the program.

An official in Netanyahu’s office said that after legal questions were raised, Netanyahu’s national security adviser had asked Mandelblit to give his opinion.

“I welcome the decision to freeze the transfer of vaccines to other countries,” Gantz said on Twitter.

Gantz is serving in Netanyahu’s government while preparing to face off against him in an election next month.

Netanyahu earlier this week defended what has been referred to as “vaccine diplomacy,” saying Israel had “unused” Moderna vaccines left over.

“I think it buys goodwill,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “I think it is an intelligent decision ... in return for many dividends that we have already received, in many ongoing contacts in many different fields that I will not elaborate about here.”

Israel has had one of the world’s fastest rollouts of COVID-19 vaccines, with nearly half the population already having received one dose.

But centrist former general Gantz said a decision to give away vaccines must be made in the “proper forums” and it was not up to Netanyahu to take such action on his own.

Vaccine diplomacy

Earlier on Thursday, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki called Netanyahu’s overseas vaccine shipments “political blackmail and an immoral act,” accusing Israel of “exploitation of the humanitarian needs of these countries.”

Israel has so far given 2,000 doses to the Palestinian Authority, arguing that they are responsible for their own healthcare system. The West Bank and Gaza are home to 5.2 million Palestinians.

Palestinians have accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including the Palestinians in its inoculation program.

Israeli officials have said that under the Oslo peace accords, the PA health ministry is responsible for vaccinating people in Gaza and parts of the West Bank where it has limited self-rule.

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