While the immunization campaign in Israel seems to be yielding its first positive results, in the West Bank and Gaza, problems and delays are holding back the start of vaccinations. And the Israeli military occupation is still making its weight felt, even with the pandemic.
The arrival in Ramallah of vials of vaccine made available by Russia and the WHO’s Covax programme is still being delayed. On Monday, Palestinian National Authority (PNA) Prime Minister Mohammed Shttayeh was unable to provide firm delivery dates for the first 400,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine expected between March and July. In addition, Israel is still holding back 2,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik vaccine intended for Gaza health personnel.
Palestinian Health Minister Mai al Kaila confirmed that on Monday, the vials were once again blocked at the border crossing between Israel and Gaza. According to the Israeli Communist deputy Ofer Cassif, this could be considered a “war crime.”
The scandal was brought to light during the weekend by the Walla news portal, one of the most popular in Israel. Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Israeli Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi put a hold on the request from the PNA Health Ministry to send the 2,000 vials to Gaza.
The reason was the petition submitted to the Supreme Court by the family of Hadar Goldin, an Israeli officer who fell in combat in Gaza during the 2014 “Protective Edge” military offensive. His remains are in Gaza and the family is demanding that they be returned in exchange for the green light to deliver vaccines. The court rejected the petition, but the parties—and not only the right-wing ones—voiced their support for the condition set by the Goldin family, for electoral reasons as well.
The affair thus ended up in the Knesset, where it was discussed on Monday in a very animated session by the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The chairman, Zvi Hauser, of the right-wing New Hope party, and MP Michal Cotler-Wunsh of the centrist White Blue, spoke out strongly against the delivery of the Sputnik doses intended for Gaza medical personnel, claiming that they will end up in the hands of Hamas leaders.
“I can still hardly believe it,” Ofer Cassif, a university lecturer and Jewish MP for the United Arab List, told il manifesto. “I’m not on that committee, I was there to listen, and I can say that the atmosphere was clearly against the delivery of the vaccines. Of course, several members (of the committee) were absent, but the atmosphere was very bad. Someone even asked for the doses to be conditional on information about two Israeli citizens held captive in Gaza.”
In response to our questions, Cassif recalled that Israel was and remains the occupier in Gaza, according to the Geneva Convention and international laws, so it is responsible for the Palestinian civilian population in that territory. “I condemn Hamas for not releasing the two Israeli civilians, but the State of Israel cannot hold millions of Palestinian civilians hostage, it cannot implement collective punishment. Obstructing medical treatment is a war crime, in addition to being inhuman.”
Faced with this situation, Cassif predicts that the Defense Minister will have to give his approval to the delivery of the Sputnik vials. As for the remains of Hadar Goldin and another soldier, Oren Shaul, which were not returned by Hamas to their families, the Palestinians point out that Israel hasn’t handed over the bodies of numerous Palestinians killed by its security forces in recent years to their families either.