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As Israel Leads In COVID-19 Vaccines Per Capita, Palestinians Still Await Shots

Edna Halup, a staff member at a private nursing home, receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, in Ganei Tikva, Israel, on Dec. 22.
Ariel Schalit
Edna Halup, a staff member at a private nursing home, receives a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, in Ganei Tikva, Israel, on Dec. 22.

Israel has vaccinated a larger share of its population against COVID-19 than any other country, and is aiming to achieve "herd immunity" from the virus by the end of spring or midsummer, the Israeli Health Ministry told NPR.

More than 800,000 of Israel's population of about 9 million have received COVID-19 vaccination shots. The country aims to vaccinate 25% of Israelis by the end of January.

The vaccination drive began Dec. 19 with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receiving the first shot on live TV. Israel so far is using the vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech and is awaiting a shipment of Moderna's vaccine.

Figures compiled by Our World in Data, a website published by Oxford University, put Israel in the lead in vaccination doses administered per 100 people. But the country is behind China, the United States and the United Kingdom in the total administered as of Thursday.

But Israel is not providing vaccines to Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank or in the Gaza Strip, which is blockaded by Israel and Egypt. Palestinian officials are scrambling to secure deals with vaccine manufacturers.

In February, 3% of Palestinians in both territories are expected to be vaccinated through COVAX, an initiative co-led by the World Health Organization and a vaccines alliance to distribute COVID-19 vaccines more equally around the world, said Ali Abed Rabbo, director general of the Palestinian Health Ministry. That program pledges to eventually vaccinate 20% of the Palestinian territories, which have a combined population of about 5 million.

On Wednesday, drugmaker AstraZeneca offered to sell the Palestinian Authority enough vaccines to cover an additional 20% of the territories' population in February, he said.

Israel says the Palestinians are responsible for their own health care under the 1990s Oslo peace accords. Some aid groups say Israel and the Palestinian Authority both share responsibility.

Abed Rabbo said the Palestinian Authority only began approaching drugmakers in the last few weeks, long after other countries inked their own vaccine deals. The Palestinian Health Ministry official said a recently resolved Palestinian financial crisis, brought on by a months-long Palestinian Authority boycott of Israel, had left few funds for vaccines. Officials had expected to receive vaccines from Russia, but Russian officials Wednesday notified the Palestinian Authority they did not yet have enough supplies to offer.

Israel's vaccination bonanza — with inoculation stations open every day, including on the Sabbath, from a sports arena in Jerusalem to tents in Tel Aviv's central square — is at the core of Prime Minister Netanyahu's campaign for reelection in March.

"Israel is the world champion in vaccines," Netanyahu said Tuesday. "Maybe we will be the first country in the world to emerge from this coronavirus."

The prime minister has said his new friendship with Pfizer's CEO got Israel toward the front of the line. Israeli officials have indicated the country paid a higher price than other countries. One Health Ministry official told local media Israel paid $62 a dose, compared to the $19.50 price tag in the U.S. In a statement to NPR, the Israeli Health Ministry did not confirm how much it paid, citing the "sensitivity of the subject," but Israeli Finance Minister Israel Katz said the higher price was necessary considering Israel was vying for vaccines among much larger countries.

Israeli officials believe the country's fast vaccination campaign could provide an early model for countries.

"One of the reasons why Israel was given some of the vaccines [may be] so we can study in advance to see how such a big effort takes place," said Dr. Boaz Lev, who heads the Health Ministry's advisory committee for prioritizing how COVID-19 vaccines are distributed.

Officially, Israel's four national health insurance companies are only vaccinating citizens over 60 years of age, health care workers and residents of psychiatric and geriatric institutions. But many younger Israelis, who are at lower risk of COVID-19 complications, have also found ways to get vaccinated.

Some clinics vaccinate younger Israelis in the evening so Pfizer vials removed from refrigeration do not go to waste, Lev said.

Some Israeli Jews have also found it easy to get vaccinated at clinics in Arab communities in Israel. Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, who comprise about a fifth of the country, have been more skeptical of the vaccine.

Nicole Schwartz, 27, accompanied her grandmother to get the vaccine Thursday, in the town of Sderot, and unexpectedly received one herself when she asked. She feels relieved after taking a year off work as a special education teacher out of concern she would catch the virus, but also guilty at how easily she as a young person got the vaccine.

"I am unhappy with how political it is to bring the vaccines and do it so fast," Schwartz said. "It's important to [Netanyahu] that everyone will know that he brought the vaccines and he did it so fast and we are the first country."

Sderot borders Gaza, where the medical system has struggled to cope with coronavirus infections.

"No one talks about it in the news, and I don't think that people that live in Sderot actually talk about it, but it's not fair," Schwartz said about Israelis having vaccines before Palestinians in Gaza. "There are people there."

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Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.