BETHLEHEM, West Bank – Since the coronavirus first surfaced in the occupied West Bank, Suha Gadeon has eagerly worn her mask, avoided meeting friends and refused to house family members or attend public gatherings.
But Ms. Gadeon, 41, the member director of the Bethlehem Chamber of Commerce, has refused to receive the Covid-19 vaccine because she is concerned about side effects such as blood clots, heart complications and hair loss. Although some harmful side effects have been noted, they are extremely rare and health experts say the benefits of vaccination far outweigh the risks.
“I am firmly against taking the vaccine now,” she said. “I wouldn’t feel comfortable until a three- to five-year study proves it’s safe to get.”
For months, the Palestinian authorities in the West Bank and the blocked Gaza Strip fought to vaccinate residents for lack of vaccine supplies.
Now they have received millions of doses, but they face a new challenge: convincing the majority of the public to get the syringes.
“We have vaccines, but we urgently need people who can be vaccinated,” said Shadi al-Liham, senior health minister in Bethlehem district. “They are critical to helping us get through the pandemic.”
The number of new cases of the virus in the West Bank and Gaza Strip rose significantly in the past week, reaching 868 in the West Bank on Thursday and 1,021 in Gaza on Friday, the highest single-day numbers in months. The number of hospital admissions in both territories has roughly tripled in the past two weeks.
But only 37 percent of eligible residents of the West Bank received at least one dose of vaccine, and about 18 percent in Gaza, according to health officials in the two territories.
Disinformation and conspiracy theories, along with well-founded concerns about diminishing vaccine efficacy, have contributed to widespread reluctance to vaccinate, said Abdulsalam al-Khayyat, director of the health department at An Najah University’s medical school in Nablus, in the West Bank.
“A lot of people just don’t get reliable information about the vaccines,” he said.
Bethlehem, where the first confirmed case of Covid-19 was found in a Palestinian city in the West Bank, is likely to have been hardest hit. Not only has the virus caused at least 258 deaths in the area, but it has also devastated the tourism industry in the city, where Christians believe Jesus Christ was born. Hotels and restaurants have closed and tour guides have become unemployed.
But in the bustling open-air market in the old town, many fruit and vegetable sellers spoke almost as loudly about their vaccination skepticism as they did when promoting their products.
“I read on the Internet that people will die two years after taking the vaccine,” said Issa Abu Huleil, 53, citing an unfounded rumor when he was selling a watermelon to a customer. “So I decided I wasn’t going to take the vaccine. Why should I risk it? My health is excellent. “
Last week, the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules Gaza, ordered government officials to be vaccinated to increase compliance.
Aug. 28, 2021, 8:29 p.m. ET
Refusing to be vaccinated “is not a question of personal freedom,” said Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh of the Palestinian Authority when announcing the decision. “Your freedom ends when it harms the health of others.”
Public service workers who do not get vaccinated will be given unpaid leave until the end of the pandemic, the authority said. The government is the West Bank’s largest employer, and Palestinian officials said the number of vaccinations had increased significantly in the last few days after the government ordinance went into effect.
In Gaza, all government employees must be vaccinated or face legal action, said Ashraf al-Qidra, a spokesman for the health ministry. And anyone in the private sector who comes into direct contact with the public through their work must also be vaccinated if they want to keep their job, said al-Qidra.
Human rights lawyers have expressed reservations about the severity of the measures, arguing that officials could have instead introduced incentives, such as extra vacation leave for vaccination or employees who refused the vaccine allowed to continue working on condition that they were regularly tested.
“There has to be a balance between public health and personal freedoms,” said Ammar Dwaik, director of the Independent Commission on Human Rights, a body established by the Palestinian government. “But I think the authorities could have considered more alternatives here,” he added.
The reluctance to vaccinate is just the latest catch in the Palestinians’ agonizing struggle against the pandemic. For much of that year, the Palestinians had very few vaccines, leading to harsh criticism of Israel for failing to protect the Palestinians under its occupation while it ran a world-leading vaccination program for Israeli citizens.
Understand US vaccination and mask requirements
- Vaccination rules. On August 23, the Food and Drug Administration fully approved Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people aged 16 and over, paving the way for increased mandates in both the public and private sectors. Private companies are increasingly demanding vaccines for employees. Such mandates are legally permissible and have been confirmed in legal challenges.
- Mask rules. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July recommended that all Americans, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks in public places indoors in areas with outbreaks, reversing the guidelines offered in May. See where the CDC guidelines would apply and where states have implemented their own mask guidelines. The battle over masks is controversial in some states, with some local leaders defying state bans.
- College and Universities. More than 400 colleges and universities require a vaccination against Covid-19. Almost all of them are in states that voted for President Biden.
- schools. Both California and New York City have introduced vaccine mandates for educational staff. A survey published in August found that many American parents of school-age children are against mandatory vaccines for students but are more likely to support masking requirements for students, teachers and staff who are not vaccinated.
- Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and large health systems require their employees to have a Covid-19 vaccine, due to rising case numbers due to the Delta variant and persistently low vaccination rates in their communities, even within their workforce.
- New York City. Proof of vaccination is required by workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances, and other indoor situations, though enforcement doesn’t begin until September 13. Teachers and other educational workers in the city’s vast school system are required to have at least one vaccine dose by September 27, with no weekly testing option. City hospital staff must also be vaccinated or have weekly tests. Similar rules apply to employees in New York State.
- At the federal level. The Pentagon announced that it would make coronavirus vaccinations compulsory for the country’s 1.3 million active soldiers “by mid-September at the latest. President Biden announced that all civil federal employees would need to be vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo regular tests, social distancing, mask requirements and travel restrictions.
But many of the doses the Palestinian Authority had were siphoned off to the upper echelons of the ruling party, media allies, and even to family members of high-ranking dignitaries. Last spring, Israel gave vaccines to more than 100,000 Palestinians working in Israel, but not the millions of other Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
And when Israel finally offered the agency more than a million doses in a vaccine-exchange deal in June, the agency turned them down.
Since the Palestinians began receiving international supplies in February, they have received more than 2.8 million doses, according to the World Health Organization, enough to fully vaccinate most of the currently eligible population. The authorities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip are in the process of accepting or negotiating deals for an additional 4.6 million cans, the organization said.
Palestinian health authorities said more than 1.2 million doses have been administered. An American donation of 500,000 cans arrived this week and an order for four million Pfizer cans arrived in batches.
Richard Peeperkorn, WHO’s representative in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, said authorities would need many more vaccines to vaccinate an overwhelming majority of the population.
“There is still a long way to go,” he said.
In a vaccination center in Bethlehem, the impact of the Palestinian Authority’s decision to vaccinate its employees was demonstrated on Thursday.
Dozens huddled near a table where nurses gave a variety of syringes while others filled out papers outside.
But several people who received the vaccination said they only got vaccinated because they had to.
“I’m not at all convinced about the vaccine,” said Mohammed Quwar, 34, an aspiring taxi driver. But the Department of Transportation, he said, would only allow him to take a driving test if he provided proof of vaccination.
“I don’t see any benefit from the vaccine, but I want to be a taxi driver,” he said. “So I really don’t have a choice.”
Iyad Abuheweila contributed to the coverage from Gaza.