Israel maintains strong control over goods and people entering Gaza, and some right-wing Israeli politicians and activists want to make vaccine distribution conditional on the release of hostages and human remains held by Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the enclave.
We warn [Israel] against the consequences of the spread of the coronavirus in Gaza, said Ismail Radwan, a former Hamas minister. The resistance will not be blackmailed and we will not pay a price for releasing the vaccine in the Gaza Strip.
Israeli officials would not comment on the reasons for the two-day delay in granting the vaccine permission to enter Gaza, saying only that the request was under consideration by the country’s National Security Council and the military agency that controls entry into Gaza.
Health officials in Gaza said they would begin inoculating residents immediately, starting with patients who are most vulnerable to death from covid-19, including transplant patients and those on dialysis.
There was confusion Wednesday over the total amount of vaccines shipped. Israeli officials said approval was given for the 1,000 doses to be distributed. But Ali Abd Rabbo, director general of the Palestinian Ministry of Heath, said his agency was sending 2,000 doses to provide two-phase protection for 1,000 people.
The Wednesday shipment represents a portion of the 10,000 doses of Sputnik delivered to the West Bank on February 3rd. The Palestinian Authority on Monday tried to send part of this supply to Gaza, according to a health official familiar with the plan, by packing the bottles in an isolated box. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine that is distributed throughout Israel, which requires extremely cold storage, the Russian version requires only basic cooling.
But the vehicle was stopped at the Beitunia Checkpoint on the West Coast.
When they arrived at the checkpoint [on Monday], there was no approval to carry out the vaccine, said an Israeli security official who was not authorized to be named. They were told to return. The difference today was that we had an approval and the vaccine was allowed to pass.
Vaccine supplies have marked another blaze in the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Human rights groups and Palestinian activists have argued that Israel has a legal and moral obligation to provide vaccines to the 5 million Palestinians living in territories it effectively controls.
The Israelis have argued that the 30-year Oslo Accords, which give the West Bank and Gaza a measure of self-government, hold the Palestinian Authority and Hamas accountable for their health systems.
Inequality has risen sharply as Israel has launched the world’s fastest vaccination program, inoculating more than 4 million people, about 40 percent of its population, since December. Many of those vaccinated live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where they share streets, jobs and grocery stores with Palestinians who have so far had almost no access to gunfire.
Several Israeli officials, including Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, have said they recognize Israel’s interest in keeping the virus away among their Palestinian neighbors, thousands of whom cross checkpoints for work every day. But they say they cannot share any vaccine until more of their own citizens are injected.
Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are participating in Covax, the international vaccine-sharing program that aims to cover about 20 percent of their needs starting with deliveries expected later this month. The two are also negotiating to receive additional doses from Russia, China and other sources.
The Palestinians denounced the initial delay in distributing the vaccines as racist and called on the international community to put pressure on Israel to release the shipment. They caught calls inside Israel to use the serum as leverage in a long-running dispute with Hamas, which is currently believed to hold two Israeli nationals, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, in addition to the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. who were killed during the 2014-Israel-Gaza war.
Hamas officials have said they would like to agree on the release of the four men in an upcoming prisoner exchange with Israel.
Goldin’s family, which has asked the Israeli Supreme Court to block the distribution of the vaccine, characterized the transfer as a knife in the heart of IDF fighters, according to media reports Wednesday.
The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, pressured officials in charge of entering Gaza to consider the hostage issue at a scathing committee meeting Monday. Some members said Hamas should, at the very least, be forced to provide information about hostages in exchange for the green light of vaccine delivery.
We know that the 500 vaccines brought to Gaza will first go to Hamas leaders and not to any member of the medical staff. Let’s not play for fools, said Zvi Hauser, a lawmaker with the right-wing party Derech Eretz.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.
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