Gaza received its first shipment of Covid-19 vaccines on Wednesday after Israel approved the transfer through its border with the Hamas Islamist-run
territory, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
Israel has faced international criticism for largely excluding Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza from its highly successful vaccination campaign. It held up the shipment for two days as the government faced questioning from a parliamentary committee before ultimately approving it.
On Wednesday, Palestinian Health Minister Mai Alkaila said in a statement that the Palestinian Authority (PA) sent 2,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine to the Hamas-controlled enclave.
The shipment finally arrived midday Wednesday at the Kerem Shalom crossing.
The dispute highlights the Palestinians' reliance on Israel even as they struggle to combat the pandemic on their own. It's also a potent example of global inequality in the rollout of vaccines, most of which have been scooped up by wealthy countries.
Gaza is home to more than 2 million Palestinians, many of whom live in close confines. It has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas, an Islamic militant group, seized power from PA forces in 2007. Gaza's health ministry has reported more than 53,000 cases and at least 538 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
Israeli lawmakers debate while Gaza awaits vaccines
Israeli lawmakers had debated whether to allow the delivery of vaccines into Gaza.
Some had argued that the delivery should be linked to progress on the release of two Israeli captives held by Hamas and the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in a 2014 war with Palestinian militants.
They have also expressed concern that vaccines would go to Hamas members rather than medics.
On Tuesday, the PA called on the World Health Organization to "condemn Israel" for its obstruction and urged it "to hold (Israel) fully responsible for the dangers arising from preventing the entry of vaccines into the Gaza Strip".
Hamas blasted the Israeli move as a "violation of all international laws and humanitarian standards".
Russia’s vaccine, which is given in two doses, was initially met with scepticism because it had not undergone the rigorous testing of other vaccines, but a recent study indicates it is safe and effective. Still, the first batch will only allow authorities to vaccinate 1,000 people, and a wider vaccination campaign could take several months.
'The amount is very small'
The PA said the first doses would go to front-line medical workers. But Ashraf al-Qedra, spokesman for the Gaza health ministry, said they would be administered in two phases, first to vulnerable patients and then to medics.
“The amount is very small and not enough to cover all 12,000 medical workers," he said. “We think it’s better to first inoculate vulnerable patients, such as organ transplant and dialysis patients.”
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 captured the West Bank in the 1967 war, and the Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state.
Israel denies having such an obligation and says its priority is its own citizens. The PA 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 10,000 doses of the Sputnik V vaccine. The PA administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and coordinates with Israel on security and other matters.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS and AFP)