The mystery of Gaza’s vanishing vaccine doses

Hamas officials have declined to reveal how many citizens have been given the jab


A year after coronavirus first appeared in the Gaza Strip, local resident Samid has made extensive enquiries but does not know a single person who has had a jab. This is not because the vaccines have yet to arrive. The first consignment of 2,000 Russian Sputnik V doses, bought by the Palestine Authority for distribution to intensive-care unit medics, crossed from Israel into Gaza in February.

The vaccines did not, however, reach the hospital staff for whom they were intended. They simply disappeared. This came as no surprise to people who live there. So where did the vaccines end up? “With the elites,” says Samid.

He knows better than to enquire further. Not with Hamas in charge. Gaza’s two million residents are kept in check by 20,000 militants.

Samid recalls a man from the Abu Awda clan in Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza who filmed a relative who had fallen ill with Covid-19. The man complained that the Hamas-run health ministry wasn’t interested. “He had a visit,” Samid recalls. “We saw the bruises they left all over him.”

Coronavirus arrived in Gaza in March last year via two men, aged 79 and 63, who had returned from Pakistan via Egypt. Despite fears that the virus would spread rapidly through the notoriously overcrowded territory, community transmission was almost entirely contained for five months, with just 109 infections and one death — and no lockdown.

Then in August, after four people from the same family tested positive and with the virus spreading rampantly in neighbouring Israel, Gaza’s authorities suddenly changed tack. The interior ministry announced a near-total lockdown. Hamas’ feared security police took to the streets to ensure businesses and residents complied with the order. The lockdown was imposed so suddenly and with such force that many households didn’t have time to stock up on basic supplies. Social media showed videos of police beating people at a food store that dared to contravene regulations.

At a time of acute anxiety for ordinary citizens, Gaza’s militant rulers made certain that no one would forget the Hamas movement’s core objective: the elimination of Israel. In a message aimed at guaranteeing there would be no “softening up” on the part of the general population, so-called ‘collaborators’ with Israel came under even more pressure than usual.

Hamas arrested Rami Aman, the 39- year-old founder of the Gaza Youth Committee, and several fellow peace activists, charging them with treason for “holding a normalisation activity with the Israeli occupation”. His crime was to promote a “Skype with your Enemy” videocall with Israeli left -wingers, in which they discussed the potential for joint efforts to combat the pandemic. It took six months — and pressure from the United Nations — to secure Aman’s release. He emerged from prison, at the height of a blistering summer, wearing a high-collared, heavy coat — ensuring any evidence of mistreatment would be shielded from the public gaze.

Yet despite this repressive atmosphere, an extraordinary story has been unfolding. While the level of anti-Israel rhetoric from Hamas remains unrelenting, it has been quietly cooperating with the enemy it has long sought to destroy.

In March 2020, soon after the scale of the coronavirus crisis became clear, unprecedented coordination took place as Hamas allowed Gaza doctors to receive secret Covid-19 training in Israel. They attended workshops not only at the Erez Crossing but also inside Israel at Ashkelon Barzilai Medical Center, with conference calls held between medics on both sides of the border. Dozens of Gazan doctors, nurses and medical personnel were trained by Israeli teams in techniques to treat patients infected with the coronavirus, in an initiative held under the auspices of Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT).

In public, Hamas, together with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, was sticking to the script. When Israel’s new peace partner, the United Arab Emirates, sent the Palestinians a cargo of much-needed humanitarian aid — including 14 tons of urgent medical supplies, 10 desperately needed ventilators and large quantities of hard-to-source Personal Protective Equipment, they turned their backs on it.

The PA, angered that the aid had been flown into Israel on the first direct flight from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, complained that it had been sent “without co-ordination and without our knowledge”. Unable to receive the life-saving cargo without agreeing logistical coordination, the PA chose to reject it, depriving both the West Bank and Gaza of help that their own people were crying out for.

But in private, the cooperation has continued. In early December, 12 Arab-Israeli doctors entered Gaza to set up a facility that provided treatment free of charge for hundreds of Palestinians. The initiative was arranged by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel in an agreement quietly approved by Hamas. The doctors included general practitioners, orthopaedists, neurologists, heart surgeons and mental health experts, operating from a specially opened facility in Khan Younis. In accordance with the Palestinians’ determination not to seek Israel’s help in the battle against Covid-19, it was agreed that the delegation from Israel would treat only the backlog of non-Covid cases that had built up as a result of the pandemic.

The reluctance of the PA and Hamas to work with Israel on battling the virus has clouded the question of who is responsible for vaccinating the people of the West Bank and Gaza.

The international community and the global media have been quick to blame Israel for the slow start to the Palestinian vaccination campaign, arguing that as an occupying power, it is required by the Geneva Convention to inoculate Palestinians who fall under its control.

Inconveniently for Israel’s critics, the Palestinian Authority takes an entirely different view. Under the Oslo Accords, the PA has had responsibility for health provision in the West Bank — including vaccination campaigns – for the past three decades or so.

As Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh stated on television recently: “We will not accept any Israeli oversight regarding our steps against coronavirus. What is required of Israel is to leave us to our own devices.”

Although the PA has allowed Israel to start vaccinating the 120,000 Palestinians who cross into Israel for work, it rebuffed an Israeli offer to set up a vaccination clinic for Muslim worshippers on the Temple Mount.

Palestinian authorities have made their own arrangements. The ministry of health has placed orders for enough doses to vaccinate 70 per cent of its people, with the international COVAX facility providing jabs for a further 20 per cent of the population. An initial consignment of 240,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine is to be shipped to the PA for distribution across the West Bank and Gaza.

And so Gaza’s vaccination campaign has supposedly begun. In February, television cameras were invited to record the official launch. It began with the health minister — and two former health ministers — receiving their jabs along with a token number of health workers. But what has happened since then? So far as the average Gazan is concerned, the precious vials seem to have vanished, as if by magic.

Hamas officials have declined to reveal how many health workers or indeed any other ordinary citizens have been given the jab.

On the streets of Gaza, people are resigned to the likelihood that virtually all of the vaccines have gone to Hamas leaders, government officials, militants and their families.

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