Knesset debates Palestinian request to allow COVID vaccines into Gaza

Some lawmakers urge conditioning delivery of 1,000 Russian Sputnik vaccines for Strip’s health workers on Hamas releasing Israeli captives, soldiers’ bodies

Members of Gaza's Central Elections Commission's field team register a local woman to the electoral roll, at the main road of Gaza City, February 10, 2021 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)
Members of Gaza's Central Elections Commission's field team register a local woman to the electoral roll, at the main road of Gaza City, February 10, 2021 (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The Palestinian Authority has asked Israeli authorities for permits to transfer 1,000 Russian coronavirus vaccine doses from Ramallah to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, and Israel is currently weighing the request, Israeli officials said on Monday.

While Israel has surged ahead of the rest of the world in vaccinating its population — around 43 percent had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Monday — the Palestinians have yet to begin a major immunization campaign.

Ramallah has received 2,100 doses of vaccine from Israel and another 10,000 doses of Sputnik V vaccine as a donation from Russia. Another 37,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine are set to arrive in the coming weeks through COVAX, an international vaccine mechanism that aims to provide free vaccines for up to 20% of the Palestinian population.

Health experts have emphasized that Israel has a key interest in ensuring that Palestinians are vaccinated. Approximately 122,000 Palestinian workers are employed in Israel or in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, making daily contact with Israelis inevitable. There is almost no people-to-people contact between Israel and Hamas-run Gaza, however.

The government is currently discussing a potential plan to vaccinate Palestinians from the West Bank who work in Israel, senior Health Ministry official Asher Salmon told the Knesset Committee on Foreign Affairs and Security on Monday.

“There is a health interest in seeing the residents of Judah and Samaria vaccinated,” Salmon said, using the Biblical name for the West Bank.

MK Zvi Hauser. (Courtesy/Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

The rollout is complicated by the ongoing rift between the PA, which enjoys limited self-rule in parts of the West Bank, and the Hamas terror group, which controls the Gaza Strip.

While some Palestinian medical employees have already been vaccinated in the West Bank, no Gazans have yet been immunized against the coronavirus. Any vaccine campaign in the coastal enclave is likely to face enormous logistical challenges, as Gaza’s health system is ill-equipped to deal with the rollout.

According to the PA Health Ministry, 53,514 Gazans have tested positive for the coronavirus and 537 have died. Hamas health officials have speculated that the true tally and death toll are much higher, citing insufficient testing.

At the peak of the virus’s spread in late December, 45% of coronavirus tests came back positive — indicating that many cases were likely going undetected.

An Israeli security official told The Times of Israel on Sunday night that the request was being examined by the National Security Council, a security body that belongs to the Prime Minister’s Office.

“There has not yet been any approval to transfer vaccines to the Gaza Strip. There was a request by the Palestinian Authority to transfer 1,000 doses of the Russian vaccine to Gaza, and that is what’s currently being discussed,” Salmon confirmed.

Ramallah requested permission to transfer the vaccines to medical staff in Gaza.

However, MK Zvi Hauser, head of the Foreign Affairs and Security, argued 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 remarked sarcastically, referring to Gaza’s de facto governor.

Palestinians in the streets of the Rafah refugee camp, southern Gaza Strip, on January 26, 2021. Photo by Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90

There is relatively little interaction between Israelis and Gazans, argued Likud MK Avi Dichter, rejecting any Israeli epidemiological interest in providing vaccines to the Gaza Strip.

“Gaza has been detached and isolated from Israel… the considerations are totally different,” said Dichter.

Despite Hauser’s repeated prodding, National Security Council official Ran Binyamini declined to state whether the NSC would approve the request. Binyamini also declined to say who, exactly, had made the decision to transfer Israeli coronavirus vaccines to the Palestinian Authority.

“It was approved by the prime minister,” Binyamini said, without explaining whether the decision had been made in the cabinet or inside the Prime Minister’s Office.

Hamas currently holds two Israelis captive — Hisham al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu. It also holds the bodies of two Israeli soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — who were killed in 2014 during Operation Protective Edge. The terror group hopes to use the four in a future prisoner exchange for its captives in Israeli jails.

“The Knesset must establish a clear condition that any vaccine that passes into the Gaza Strip requires the return of the four Israelis,” said MK Alex Kushnir of the Yisrael Beytenu party.

Hauser appeared to agree, asking Binyamini whether the NSC would permit the Knesset’s Subcommittee for Intelligence, Secret Services, Captives and Missing Soldiers to sign off on the decision whether to transfer vaccines to Gaza.

“We must establish a new humanitarian equation, one demanded by the current reality. Israel and its leaders must not give up on the opportunity to return the bodies of the soldiers and bring them to burial in Israel,” Hauser said.

Joint List MKs Ahmad Tibi and Ofer Cassif — who attended the discussion despite not being members of the committee — called the suggestion “a war crime.”

“Preventing medical treatment is a war crime, a violation of international law, and even worse — it is an inhumane stance,” Cassif said.

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