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Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Secretary of State Tony Blinken asked his Israeli counterpart in their phone call on Monday for Israel to facilitate the transfer of COVID-19 vaccines to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, Israeli officials told me.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, the Israeli prime minister’s office announced that Israel has decided to send a "symbolic amount" of vaccines to the Palestinian Authority and to several countries that have asked for assistance.

  • The prime minister’s office said the Palestinians will get several thousand vaccine doses for medical teams.
  • A similar number of doses will be given to several other countries like Honduras, which sent a plane to pick up the vaccines. The vaccines will be taken from a supply of 100,000 Moderna doses that Israel purchased but hasn’t yet used.

Why it matters: Israel has enhanced its assistance to the Palestinians on COVID-19 in recent weeks after facing criticism in the international media.

  • Palestinian foreign minister Riyad al-Maliki said in a Zoom speech at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council on Monday that Israel has refused to give vaccines to the Palestinians or even allow vaccine shipments from abroad to enter the West Bank and Gaza.
  • Israel claims this criticism is false and politically motivated.

The big picture: The Biden administration is seeking to improve the situation on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza and to gradually build trust between Israelis and Palestinians. Biden administration officials believe fighting COVID-19 could be a basis for positive cooperation between Israel and the Palestinians.

Driving the news: Blinken and Ashkenazi discussed Iran and other regional issues on their phone call, but COVID-19 cooperation with the Palestinians was raised by the secretary of state as a specific action item.

  • Israeli officials told me Ashkenazi stressed to Blinken that Israel is the country that has vaccinated the highest number of Palestinians in the world so far, pointing to 300,000 Palestinians in East Jerusalem who receive health services from Israel.
  • Ashkenazi told Blinken Israel has given a few hundred vaccine doses to the Palestinians from its national supply, allowed a shipment of Sputnik V vaccines from Russia to enter the West Bank, and allowed part of this shipment into Gaza. Ashkenazi told Blinken Israel is also considering vaccinating around 75,000 Palestinians who work in Israel.
  • State Department spokesman Ned Price declined to comment. In a briefing on Friday, Price said the U.S. believes "it’s important for Palestinians to achieve increased access to COVID vaccines in the weeks ahead."

What next: Last Friday, a delegation of senior officials from the Israeli Ministry of Health visited Ramallah for talks with their Palestinian counterparts. One of the issues discussed was for Israel to give the Palestinians 100,000 doses of vaccines from its national supply to vaccinate medical teams and people over the age of 60.

Go deeper

FBI, Homeland Security warn of increasing threat to Capitol

Photo: Eric Baradat/AFP via Getty Images

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report reviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says an unidentified group of extremists discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

25 mins ago - World

Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

"Neanderthal thinking": Biden slams states lifting mask mandates

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).