Israel debates banning COVID-19 vaccines for Gaza until captives released

"The time has come to change the paradigm so that one humanitarian gesture is exchanged for another."

 Palestinian medical worker collects a swab sample from a boy to be tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the southern Gaza Strip January 14, 2021. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinian medical worker collects a swab sample from a boy to be tested for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the southern Gaza Strip January 14, 2021.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel has yet to decide whether to link the transfer of COVID-19 vaccines to Gaza with the release of the remains of two IDF soldiers and two captive Israel citizens, officials told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday.
“No vaccines have been transferred to Gaza” to date, a number of officials clarified for the FADC, with the matter still under debate and no policy decision having been taken.
Israel has been heavily criticized internationally for not providing vaccines from its own stock of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for the treatment of Palestinians both in the West Bank and Gaza, although under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority is solely responsible for the health care of Palestinians.
Officials clarified at the meeting that the issue confronting Israel was not whether to use its stock for the Palestinians, because the vaccines Israel has are reserved for its citizens except for 5,000 dozes of the Pfizer vaccine that had been given to the Palestinian Authority for its health-care workers.
Of those 5,000, only some 2,000 have been given to the PA, according to Col. Eyal Zeevi, who heads the operations department for the Office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
Dr. Asher Salmon, head of the Health Ministry’s International Department, told the committee that the Pfizer vaccine is extremely fragile and must be kept under very cold conditions, and so it cannot be transferred to Gaza.
Israel’s focus has been on helping facilitate PA purchase of the vaccine for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
There is consensus about the need for Israel to help facilitate the Palestinian purchase of vaccines, Salmon said, adding that the policy debate had centered solely around Gaza.
In both instances, he said, the vaccination of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza is a health priority for Israel, given that it would be impossible to control the spread of the pandemic until the Palestinians were vaccinated.
Zeevi said that 10,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik vaccine had been transferred to the PA, which requested that 1,000 be transferred to Gaza for health-care workers there.
The transfer of those vaccines has been delayed pending Israel’s decision on a Gaza policy, Zeevi explained, and that as Israel would not transfer any vaccines for Gaza directly, the question was whether to allow the PA to transfer them.
FADC chairman MK Tzvi Hauser (Derech Eretz) said that at the very least there should be a demand for information regarding the fate of the two Israelis, Hisham Al-Sayed and Avera Mengistu, believed to be held captive by Hamas. Israel has not received any information regarding their fate, and the Red Cross has not been allowed to visit them, Hauser said.
Maximally, he said, the demand should be both for their release from captivity, and the return of the remains of the two IDF soldiers believed killed during the 2014 Gaza war, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.
MK Ofer Cassif (Joint List) charged that as the “occupying power” that controlled crossing into Gaza, Israel had an “ethical and moral” responsibility to provide vaccinates for Gaza either from its own stock or from other sources.
A debate on the matter is both “criminal and shameful.” The Red Cross clearly states that the obligation to observe humanitarian law does “not depend on reciprocity,” Cassif explained.
He acknowledged that Hamas had acted “criminally” in holding the Israeli citizens captive and that it was also unacceptable and a violation of international law. But Cassif charged that Hamas’ actions were akin to those of the IDF in the West Bank: the IDF enters
Palestinian homes in the middle of the night to “abduct” people and then holds them without charges. “This is no less terrible than what Hamas does,” he said.
At one point a shouting match broke out between FADC chairman MK Tzvi Hauser (Derech Eretz) and Cassif.
“You are sitting in the Israeli parliament and you are representing anti-Israeli interests,” Hauser charged. “If it were up to you, you would have voted against the creation of the state of Israel. Now you are exploiting this forum to attack Israel. You are sacrificing Israeli citizens and standing with terror organizations, you should be ashamed.”
MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) warned that those who prevented anyone – medical staff and/or Palestinians – from receiving COVID-19 vaccines were directly responsible for their illness and death.
There is no difference between refraining from providing vaccines and urging people not be vaccinated.
“Everyone must be vaccinated!,” Tibi said.
He noted that the discussions were recorded and could be made available in English.
Twenty years from now “your children will be ashamed,” Tibi said. “It would have been better for you not to hold this hearing, and people should not be prevented from getting vaccinated.”
MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Blue and White) said that “Gaza is ruled by a murderous terrorist organization, which holds two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two soldiers.” She added that by refusing to release the bodies and the soldiers, Hamas was holding the two million Palestinians in Gaza hostage to the situation.
“Hamas doesn’t want to be accountable to international law, it just wants to benefit from it,” she said. “A system without reciprocity collapses. There cannot be a one-way system.”
The National Security Council is expected to put forward its opinion on Tuesday.