RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — The Palestinian Authority said Monday that Israel was preventing it from sending coronavirus vaccines to the Gaza Strip that are intended for frontline medical workers in the territory controlled by the Islamic militant group Hamas.
Palestinian Health Minister Mai Alkaila said in a statement that Israel bore “full responsibility” for blocking the shipment of 2,000 doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine that were acquired by the PA, which governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The PA has said it will share its vaccine supply with Gaza, where the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power from its forces in 2007. The territory, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, has yet to receive any vaccines. Authorities there have reported more than 53,000 cases and at least 537 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade on Gaza since the Hamas takeover. Some Israeli lawmakers have said Israel should only allow in vaccines in return for progress on the release of two captive Israelis and the remains of two Israeli soldiers being held by Hamas.
An Israeli official said Israel has received a request to allow 1,000 Sputnik V doses to be delivered to Gaza that was still being debated late Monday.
“It wasn’t blocked. They are still contemplating it,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss high-level deliberations.
In a discussion on Monday in Israel’s foreign affairs and defense committee, Chairman Zvi Hauser asked a representative from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s National Security Council for details on the vaccine transfer policy.
Hauser asked if the government “intends to demand the return of bodies and captives or demand that the Red Cross be allowed to visit the captives there, or at least ask for information about them.” He also expressed concern that the vaccines would go to Hamas and not medical workers.
The National Security Council official, Roi Binyamini, told the panel that the government had no intention of sharing Israel’s own supply of vaccines with Gaza. But he said the government was weighing requests from other parties to allow the PA to deliver its own vaccines to Gaza. He said he expected a decision to be made quickly.
Israel has launched one of the world's most successful vaccination programs, inoculating more than a third of its population of 9.3 million since December.
Rights groups say it has an obligation as an occupying power to share its vaccines with the Palestinians. Israel denies having such an obligation and says its priority is its own citizens. The Palestinian Authority has not publicly requested vaccines from Israel and says it has secured its own supply through the World Health Organization and agreements with drug makers.
Still, Israel provided 2,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine to the PA earlier this month, allowing it to begin vaccinating medical workers, and the PA says it independently acquired another 10,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. It would need Israel's permission to transfer them to Gaza.
Hamas is believed to be holding two captives, an Israeli of Ethiopian descent who entered Gaza shortly after the 2014 war and an Arab Bedouin citizen of Israel. It is also holding the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in the war. In exchange, Hamas is likely to demand the release of a large number of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, including individuals implicated in deadly attacks.
Associated Press writer Josef Federman contributed.