PM's office declines to explain reason for two-day holdup

After delay, Israel allows transfer of first COVID vaccine doses to Gaza

Hamas claims the shots are to be given to at-risk groups, but Israeli MKs warn they’re more likely to go to the terror group’s leaders

Russian COVID vaccines delivered from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to the Gaza Strip on February 17, 2021 (courtesy)
Russian COVID vaccines delivered from the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah to the Gaza Strip on February 17, 2021 (courtesy)

Israeli authorities, after a two-day delay, transferred a consignment of Russian COVID-19 vaccines to Gaza on Wednesday following a formal request by the Palestinian Authority.

“This morning, 1,000 Sputnik vaccines donated by Russia [to the Palestinian Authority] are being transferred from the Palestinian Authority to the Gaza Strip, in accordance with the Palestinian Authority’s request and the approval of the political echelon,” an Israeli security official said in a statement.

On Wednesday afternoon, both Israeli and Palestinian officials confirmed the arrival of the vaccine through Kerem Shalom commercial crossing.

The doses are the first coronavirus vaccines to arrive in the Gaza Strip since the beginning of the pandemic. The PA, which is responsible for acquiring vaccines for both the West Bank and Gaza, has only just begun receiving coronavirus shots — including some 2,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine from Israel.

Israeli and Palestinian officials initially released seemingly conflicting statements about how many doses were being sent to Gaza Wednesday.

Palestinian Authority and Hamas health officials both said that Israel had been blocking the delivery of 2,000 doses of the Russian vaccine, while Israeli health official Asher Salmon told the Knesset that Israel had only received a request to transfer 1,000 doses.

However, both the PA and Hamas clarified later Wednesday, after the doses arrived in Gaza, that the shipment comprised 1,000 two-dose sets of the vaccine.

Palestinians sit as PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh opens a hospital for COVID-19 patients in the West Bank city of Nablus, on January 16, 2021. (Nasser Ishtayeh/ Flash90)

While some PA officials said that the doses were intended for Palestinian health care workers, Hamas health official Majdi Dahir said in a statement on Wednesday that they were to be distributed to some groups at risk of grave complications from coronavirus.

“The 2,000 doses will be distributed to kidney and organ transplant patients. We have no information about additional shipments,” said Dahir.

But MK Zvi Hauser, head of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, asserted on Monday that the vaccines were more likely to reach the Hamas leadership.

“I don’t see Yahya Sinwar giving his vaccine to a kind nurse in Gaza,” Hauser said sarcastically, referring to Gaza’s de facto governor.

Hauser proposed setting up an Israeli vaccination station at one of Gaza’s crossings to ensure the vaccines reached ordinary Gazans.

The Prime Minister’s Office did not respond to a request for comment on the reason for the delay in the delivery, though some Israeli lawmakers had demanded conditioning the transfer of the vaccines on the return of Israeli captives held by Hamas.

The terror group currently holds two Israelis — Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — and the remains of two Israeli soldiers — Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul. Hamas officials have said they hope to use the four as bargaining chips in a future prisoner exchange with Israel.

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)

“Israel is going beyond the letter of the law in providing humanitarian aid. We will give humanitarian aid, yes, in exchange for humanitarianism,” outgoing Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsch said at the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting on Monday.

Goldin’s family, which has repeatedly called for the vaccines’ entry to be conditioned on the return of the two servicemen’s bodies, called the transfer “a knife in the heart of Israeli soldiers.” The family filed a petition in the High Court to immediately halt the transfer of the vaccines.

“This government is losing control and abandoning the boys. The most basic obligation it has is to bring back Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin,” Goldin’s father, Simcha, said in a statement.

An Israeli defense official told The Times of Israel that the Palestinian Authority had sent a truck containing the vaccines to the Beitunia commercial crossing south of Ramallah on Monday. Israeli authorities turned the truck away, the official said.

Simcha Goldin, father of late Israeli soldier Hadar Goldin whose body is held by Hamas, speaks at a protest calling on the government to return the bodies of his son and fellow late Israeli soldier Oron Shaul outside the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on August 10, 2018. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“They sent a truck full of vaccines down to Beitunia without any kind of coordination with us, without having received the proper permits,” the official said, calling the incident “inane.”

A senior Palestinian health official did not respond to a request for comment.

Hamas blasted Israel for not allowing the vaccines to enter the Strip immediately. The delay in allowing the vaccines constituted “a real crime and a violation of all international laws and humanitarian standards,” said Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem.

While Israel has surged ahead in vaccinating its population — 44 percent of Israelis had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Tuesday — the Palestinians have yet to begin a major immunization rollout.

The PA began immunizing some frontline Palestinian healthcare workers in early February after receiving an initial shipment of 10,000 Sputnik V vaccine doses. Ramallah also received 2,000 Moderna vaccine doses from Israel, with another 3,000 on the way.

The vaccination campaign, however, is complicated by the Palestinians’ geographical and political division. The West Bank is ruled by the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority, while the Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas.

The two rival Palestinian political movements have been deeply at odds since 2007, when they fought a bitter civil war. Nonetheless, the two sides have pledged to coordinate on distributing the coronavirus vaccine in Gaza, and Hamas expects most of their vaccines to arrive from the PA.

Ramallah is set to receive most of the immunizations acquired by the PA, although some others will head straight from Israeli ports to Gaza, World Health Organization envoy Gerald Rockenschaub told The Times of Israel on Monday.

According to the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry, 169,487 Palestinians have tested positive for the coronavirus in the West Bank and Gaza, and 1,942 have died of COVID-19. But little testing has been done, suggesting that the true figure could be much higher. A preliminary study by the PA Health Ministry found coronavirus antibodies in 40% of Palestinians surveyed.

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