GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The Palestinian Authority sent the first shipment of coronavirus vaccines to the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Wednesday, two days after accusing Israel of preventing it from dispatching the doses amid objections from some Israeli lawmakers.
Palestinian Health Minister Mai Alkaila said in a statement that the PA sent 2,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine. An Associated Press photographer in Gaza saw the shipment arrive midday at the Kerem Shalom crossing.
An Israeli defense official said that authorities approved the delivery, adding that it's “not in Israel's interest to have a Gaza health crisis.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
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 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.
Russia’s vaccine, which is given in two doses, was initially met with skepticism 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 Palestinian Authority 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 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 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.
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. 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 writers Joseph Krauss and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.