Short of Workers, Israel Builders Seek to Vaccinate Palestinians

Israeli builders want the government to share some of its coronavirus vaccine with Palestinian construction workers to help rally a battered housing industry.

While Israel is racing to inoculate its citizens, the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority has no vaccination program in place. Beyond being a critical health issue, the gap is also an economic problem because the Israeli construction sector relies heavily on Palestinian workers who’ve been cut off repeatedly from building sites due to lockdowns.

Before the pandemic, about 65,000 Palestinians worked for Israeli contractors inside Israel, accounting for a third of their workforce. Closures and restrictions on both sides led to a 30% drop in housing starts despite rising demand.

The Israel Builders Association has asked the government to allow Palestinian workers to get vaccinated inside Israel to turn around the $43 billion industry’s dismal year, said Deputy Director General Shay Pauzner.

“We have a lack of a very large number of workers,” Pauzner said. “We’re working in many different ways to get the numbers back up as soon as possible.”

Palestinians also have a lot at stake economically. The 100,000 Palestinians that typically work inside Israel account for about 20% of the $15 billion Palestinian economy, according to the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute.

Israel’s vaccine program also raises questions about the country’s responsibility toward the 2.7 million West Bank Palestinians living under its occupation, and the 2 million people in the Gaza Strip whose movement and ability to trade it still heavily restricts. This, at a time when it’s a world leader in per capita inoculations.

The Israeli Health Ministry declined to comment on the builders’ request. The plan hasn’t yet been broached to the Palestinian Authority, which would expect to handle the inoculations itself, said senior Palestinian Health Ministry official Khaled Shiha.

Supply Shortage

The labor shortage has deepened a perennial lack of building supply.

“The damage caused by the coronavirus crisis until now is expressed mainly in the pace of construction and building completions,” Bank Leumi Le-Israel economists wrote in a Dec. 23 research report. “2020 will be a year in which the shortage of housing units ready for delivery will only worsen.”

The trade group is acting as both sides struggle to tame outbreaks exacerbated by the cross-border traffic. Israel, with more than 400,000 confirmed cases and 3,250 dead, is in its third lockdown. In the West Bank and Gaza, cases have recently soared to 124,000 and deaths to 1,290.

“We are connected in this pandemic and they can’t consider themselves vaccinated without doing the same thing with the Palestinian population,” Shiha said.

Securing Vaccines

Cash-strapped Palestinians have had trouble securing vaccines, even as Israel has signed deals with Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca Plc.

Shiha said about 20% of the Palestinian population will be covered by vaccines supplied by a World Health Organization-backed program, but has not yet struck private deals. He estimated 70% of the population could be inoculated by August.

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