Israel approved plans to vaccinate Palestinian laborers employed in Israeli communities on Sunday. The move comes after the country came under severe criticism for failing to include Palestinians in its vaccination drive.

COGAT, a branch of Israel’s defense ministry, announced the plans to vaccinate approximately 130,000 Palestinian workers legally employed in Israeli communities. 

“As part of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus and in accordance with the recommendation of COGAT and the Ministry of Health, the government approved a vaccination campaign for Palestinian workers with work permits in Israel and Israeli settlements,” COGAT said in a statement.

COGAT also said the vaccinations were being offered “as part of the efforts to fight the spread of COVID-19” and will be essential for maintaining public health and smooth functioning of the economy.

The announcement came a week after Israeli health officials met their Palestinian counterparts to discuss matters relating to the pandemic. 

Israel has already vaccinated close to one-third of its population in one of the world’s fastest vaccine roll-outs. While the effective vaccination drive has attracted a lot of praise, it has been repeatedly criticized for ignoring the Palestinian population. 

Israel disputes the claims of discrimination and maintains that healthcare in occupied territories is the responsibility of the Palestinian Authorities according to agreed-upon mechanisms. 

Despite the go-ahead to vaccinate Palestinian workers, some human rights groups have stressed the need to vaccinate all Palestinians.  

“Vaccinating Palestinian workers is a necessary step. But Israel is morally and legally obligated to provide for the whole Palestinian population, and should put its own epidemiological interest first and work to vaccinate everyone who works in areas it controls,” said Physicians for Human Rights Israel director Ran Goldstein.

Omar Shakir, Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch, said that Israel was bound by international law to vaccinate Palestinians living under its effective control. He also questioned the morality behind only vaccinating those who come in contact with Israelis

“Vaccinating only those Palestinians who come in contact with Israelis reinforces that, to Israeli authorities, Palestinian life only matters to the extent it affects Jewish life,” Shakir said.

The West Bank is currently grappling with a third wave of coronavirus. The number of cases in the region has surged up to 12,897. 

The rising number of cases has also put the healthcare system under immense stress with Coronavirus Intensive Care Units in the territory reaching close to 95% occupancy. As a response, the Palestinian Authority has implemented a partial lockdown in the territory for 12 days.