Abbas rival Dahlan arranges 20,000 UAE-funded coronavirus vaccine doses for Gaza

Abu Dhabi sends Russian Sputnik V vaccines to Egypt, from where they are to enter Gaza through Rafah crossing; doses en route after Ramallah sent 2,000 to Strip’s medical staff

A Palestinian health worker takes samples for coronavirus at a health center in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 4, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)
A Palestinian health worker takes samples for coronavirus at a health center in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 4, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

A shipment of 20,000 Russian coronavirus vaccine doses donated by the United Arab Emirates is on its way to the Gaza Strip, according to an announcement Thursday by Mohammad Dahlan, an exiled Fatah official who lives in the Emirates.

Dahlan, a key rival of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is rumored to be a close adviser to Abu Dhabi’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Zayed.

“We hope that the vaccines will be allocated to medical teams fighting the epidemic head-on and heroically, as well as to the groups that most seriously need it,” Dahlan said in a Facebook post announcing the vaccine shipment.

A spokesperson for the Emirati Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Mohammed Dahlan during an interview with The Associated Press in his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on January 3, 2011. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

Former PA Health Minister Jawad al-Tibi, who directs health affairs for Dahlan’s breakaway Fatah faction, told The Times of Israel that the vaccines arrived in Abu Dhabi seven days ago and were earmarked for use by the Palestinians.

According to al-Tibi, the vaccines were sent to Egypt and had been set to cross into Gaza through Rafah crossing on Thursday. But due to the winter storm that swept through large swaths of the Middle East this week, their entrance was delayed.

“The proper coordination was done to bring them into the Gaza Strip. But due to the storm, they are now set to arrive on Sunday,” al-Tibi said.

While Israel has surged ahead in immunizing its citizens, the Palestinians have yet to begin a full vaccine rollout. Around 12,000 doses of coronavirus immunizations have reached Ramallah, which in turn has sent 2,000 coronavirus vaccines to the Gaza Strip.

At the peak of Gaza’s wave of infections in mid-December, the coastal enclave had about 10,000 active cases while as many as 45% of tests were coming back positive. Hamas deputy health ministry Yusuf Abu Rish recently estimated that as many as 40 percent of Gaza’s residents may have been infected with the coronavirus.

The coronavirus situation in the Gaza Strip has been improving recently, with only 2,168 active cases and relatively few tests coming back positive. Health authorities in the densely populated coastal enclave have moved to allow schools and popular markets to reopen.

Hamas security forces stand guard at the Rafah border crossing with Egypt, in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 9, 2021 (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Hamas health official Munir al-Bursh on Thursday confirmed that the Gaza Health Ministry was in talks on the subject of the vaccines’ arrival.

“We’re in discussions with the Democratic Reform Current at this moment on the matter,” al-Bursh said in a phone call, referring to Dahlan’s movement.

Al-Tibi said that he had asked Dahlan to provide as many as 300,000 doses to the Gaza Strip. He said he anticipated further shipments, although he declined to say when the next would arrive and how many vaccines would be included.

Relations between Palestinian factions and the UAE have grown tense in recent months due to Abu Dhabi’s decision in mid-August to fully normalize ties with Israel, which both the Hamas terror group and the Palestinian Authority called “a stab in the back” to the Palestinian cause.

But the UAE has sent several aid shipments to Gaza since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. In December, Abu Dhabi sent 14.4 tons of medical supplies through their intermediaries in Dahlan’s Democratic Reform Current. In January, they sent a critical oxygen station for use by seriously ill coronavirus patients.

In a conversation in December, al-Bursh dismissed the notion of ideological differences trumping the needs of Gaza’s civilian population.

“In the face of a health disaster, it would be inconceivable to reject aid that we need,” al-Bursh said at the time.

Members of the Palestinian security forces enforce a lockdown following the spread of the coronavirus in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on December 18, 2020. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

Gaza’s fragile health infrastructure has been worn down by three wars and a 13-year blockade by Israel and Egypt, which imposes tight restrictions on materials entering and exiting the coastal enclave.

Israel argues that the blockade is necessary to prevent a far greater military threat from Gaza’s Hamas rulers, who avowedly seek to destroy the Jewish state. Rights groups, however, have condemned the devastating impact on Gaza’s civilian population and the economy entailed by the restrictions.

The doses are set to arrive in the Gaza Strip against the backdrop of the possibility of the first Palestinian national elections in 15 years. Although many are skeptical that the elections will actually take place amid the ongoing schism between Hamas and Fatah, optimism has been growing in diplomatic circles that the planned vote will come to pass.

While opinion polls show little grassroots support for Dahlan in the West Bank, the former Gaza security chief’s powerful regional patron provides him with resources to use against his Fatah and Hamas rivals.

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