UAE virus aid rejected by Palestinians still at Israel’s airport; UN rethinking

14 tons of medical supplies languishing at Ben Gurion airport for past week; PA refused delivery; cargo flight was seen as normalizing ties between Israel and Gulf states

An Etihad Airways flight with aid for the Palestinians to fight the coronavirus pandemic is unloaded at Ben Gurion Airport on May 19, 2020. (Nickolay Mladenov/Twitter)
An Etihad Airways flight with aid for the Palestinians to fight the coronavirus pandemic is unloaded at Ben Gurion Airport on May 19, 2020. (Nickolay Mladenov/Twitter)

Fourteen tons of medical supplies earmarked for the Palestinians to help cope with the coronavirus pandemic were still sitting at Ben Gurion Airport on Tuesday evening, a week after they arrived from the UAE, as UN officials worked to find a way to  distribute the aid after the Palestinian Authority announced it would not accept it.

The aid arrived on what was the first-ever direct flight from the United Arab Emirates to Israel last Tuesday. The landing was celebrated by the Foreign Ministry, which notified reporters in advance about the historic route by which the supplies would be arriving.

However, the PA has insisted the UAE did not coordinate the matter and that it therefore could not accept the aid, which was seen as a step normalizing ties between Israel and the Gulf states.

The supplies — which include ten ventilators, PPE (personal protective equipment), lithium batteries for charging relevant hospital equipment and cleaning materials — were clearing customs at Ben Gurion and are slated to be transferred to a holding facility in Ashdod, a UN official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday evening.

The official did not tie the week-long stall to the PA’s announced rejection of the supplies. He said the UAE cargo flight was not the only one to have arrived at Ben Gurion, and that clearing customs and security checks takes time.

An Etihad Airways plane ferrying medical aid for the Palestinians taxis after landing at Ben Gurion Airport on May 19, 2020. It was the first known commercial flight between the United Arab Emirates and Israel. (Screen capture: Twitter)

“Once it gets to Ashdod, hopefully tomorrow, we’ll start having conversations about how to dispatch the aid,” the UN official said.

Despite the public refusals from the PA, including from Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and Health Minister Mai al-Kaila, the official hinted that there would still be efforts to transfer some of the aid to the West Bank. However, he made clear that there was far greater need in the Gaza  Strip.

The UN conducted an assessment of the ongoing medical situations in both territories where it operates extensively and determined that roughly 65% of the UAE shipment should go to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip while the remainder could go to the West Bank, the official explained.

“The plan supports the efforts led by the Government of Palestine to contain the pandemic and mitigate its impact,” UN Middle East Envoy Nikolay Mladenov said in a statement last week lauding the UAE shipment.

United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov at a press conference at the (UNSCO) offices in Gaza City, September 25, 2017. (Adel Hana/AP)

In addition to the UAE, the Turkish government had also been involved in donating supplies as well as an Australian NGO, which the UN official did not identify. All three entities had donated supplies while other countries had sent cash in response to the UN’s COVID-19 funding drive, according to the official who spoke to The Times of Israel.

The UN official dismissed reports that the attention drawn by the Israeli government to the direct flight from the UAE had scuttled the effort to send aid to the Palestinians. “Israel has been really helpful throughout. This was obviously a lot more complicated [because of the nature in which the aid was transferred], but there was no frustration from our side” regarding Israel’s role, he said.

As for the PA’s rejection of the aid, the UN official said there had been a “misunderstanding” between Abu Dhabi and Ramallah, “but from our side, we’re just waiting for how to dispatch the aid.” He added that the UN was waiting for the shipment to arrive in Ashdod before it begins reaching out to the PA.

On Sunday, Mladenov published an additional statement on Twitter thanking the UAE and other donor countries for their efforts adding that his office would “make sure that everything reaches the most vulnerable.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) and PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh at a meeting of the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 19, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool/AFP)

A second UN official said Mladenov’s emphasis on “most vulnerable” was a hint, that given the PA’s rejections, his office would work on transferring the aid to Gaza instead.

Explaining Ramallah’s decision to reject the medical supplies, PA Health Ministry medical services director Osama al-Najjar said, “The Emirates did not coordinate with us in the slightest, they worked with Israel alone.”

“We cannot accept shipments that are a gateway to normalization between Arab countries and Israel. This is a political matter which Israel has sought for quite some time, turning the Arab Peace Initiative upside-down,” referring to the Saudi-led proposal which promises Israel normalized ties with the Arab world if it reaches a two-state solution based on 1967 borders.

Al-Najjar clarified that the PA’s issue had not been that the aid had been sent through Israel, but rather the manner in which it had been done so.

“We don’t have any problem with medical supplies arriving in Ben Gurion Airport. We received supplies from China through Ben Gurion with close coordination between us and the PA,” he said referring to aid that Beijing had sent Ramallah last month.

Asked what he thought would happen to the medical supplies, al-Najjar responded, “I do not know where they will go, but we won’t accept them. They’re free to do with them what they please, but we will neither accept them nor welcome them.”

However, al-Najjar did acknowledge that the PA is in need of ventilators.

A Hamas-run Gaza health ministry spokesman did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

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