Israel maintains tight control over goods and people entering Gaza, and some right-wing Israeli politicians and activists want to condition the delivery of vaccines on the release of hostages and human remains held by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that governs the enclave.
“We warn [Israel] against the consequences of the spread of coronavirus in Gaza,” said Ismail Radwan, a former Hamas minister. “The resistance will not be blackmailed, and we will not pay a price for letting the vaccine into the Gaza Strip.”
Israeli officials would not comment on the reasons for the two-day delay in granting permission for the vaccine to enter Gaza, saying only that the request had been under review by the country’s National Security Council and the military agency that controls access to Gaza.
Health officials in Gaza City said they would begin inoculating residents immediately, starting with patients who are most vulnerable to dying of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, including transplant patients and those on dialysis.
Gaza, where clean water and reliable electricity are in critically short supply and crowded refugee camps make it one of the most densely populated territories in the world, has battled to keep the virus from overwhelming its meager health system. Gaza has registered almost 54,000 positive coronavirus cases and 538 deaths.
Wednesday’s shipment represents a portion of the 10,000 doses of Sputnik delivered to the West Bank on Feb. 3. The Palestinian Authority tried Monday to dispatch part of that supply to Gaza, according to a health official familiar with the plan, packing the vials in an insulated box. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine being distributed across Israel, which requires ultracold storage, the Russian version requires only basic refrigeration.
But the vehicle was stopped at the Beitunia Checkpoint in the West Bank.
“When they arrived at the checkpoint [on Monday], there was no approval to deliver the vaccine,” said an Israeli security official who was not authorized to be quoted by name. “They were told to come back. The difference today was that we had an approval in place, and the vaccine was allowed to pass through.”
Vaccine supplies have marked another flash point in the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Human rights groups and Palestinian activists have argued that Israel has both a legal and moral obligation to provide vaccine to the 5 million Palestinians living in territories it effectively controls.
Israelis have countered that the 30-year Oslo accords, which give the West Bank and Gaza a measure of self-government, make the Palestinian Authority and Hamas responsible for their own health systems.
The disparity has grown stark as Israel has rolled out the world’s fastest vaccination program, inoculating more than 4 million people, about 40 percent of its residents, since December. Many of those vaccinated live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, where they share roads, workplaces and grocery stores with Palestinians who so far have had almost no access to the shots.
Some Israeli officials, including Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, have said they recognize Israel’s self-interest in keep the virus at bay amid their Palestinian neighbors, thousands of whom cross the checkpoints for work every day. But they say they can share no vaccine until more of their own citizens are injected.
Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are participating in Covax, the international vaccine-sharing program that aims to cover about 20 percent of their needs starting with deliveries expected later this month. Both are also negotiating to acquire other doses from Russia, China and other sources.
Palestinians denounced the initial delay in delivering the vaccines as “racist” and called on the international community to pressure Israel to free the shipment. They seized on calls within Israel to use the serum as leverage in a long-standing dispute with Hamas, which is currently believed to be holding two Israeli citizens, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, in addition to the remains of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, who were killed during the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.
Hamas officials have said they would like to bargain the release of the four men in a future prisoner swap with Israel.
The family of Goldin, which has petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to block the vaccine delivery, characterized the transfer as “a knife in the heart of IDF fighters,” according to media reports Wednesday.
Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, pressed officials in charge of Gaza access to take the hostage issue into account at an acrimonious committee meeting Monday. Some members said Hamas, at the very least, should be forced to provide information about the hostages in exchange for greenlighting the vaccine delivery.
“We know that 500 vaccines that are brought to Gaza will first go to Hamas leaders and not to any medical staff member. Let us not be played for fools,” said Zvi Hauser, a lawmaker with the right-wing Derech Eretz party.
Hazem Balousha in Gaza contributed to this report.