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Palestinians accuse Israel of preventing COVID-19 vaccine transfer to Gaza

TEL AVIV/GAZA (Reuters) - The Palestinian Authority (PA) accused Israel on Monday of holding up the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines into Gaza, where Palestinians have yet to receive any doses.

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A Palestinian official told Reuters that the PA tried to send 2,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine from the occupied West Bank to Gaza on Monday, but that Israel stopped the shipment at a West Bank checkpoint “and informed the Palestinians there was no approval to continue to Gaza.”

An Israeli security official said the PA’s request to send the 2,000 doses was “still being examined” and that “an approval hasn’t yet been given”.

The body charged with approving the transfer is Israel’s national security council, part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, the Israeli security official said.

Netanyahu’s office did not immediately provide comment.

PA officials say they submitted the transfer request to Israeli defence authorities soon after receiving an initial shipment of 10,000 Russian doses in the West Bank on Feb. 4.

“Today, 2,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine were transferred to enter the Gaza Strip, but the occupation authorities prevented their entry,” a statement from PA Health Minister Mai Alkaila said.

“These doses were intended for medical staff working in intensive care rooms designated for COVID-19 patients, and for staff working in emergency departments,” the statement added.

The vaccine shipment was returned to Ramallah because it needs to be kept under cold temperatures, the Palestinian official said.

The delay highlights the challenges that Palestinians may face inoculating citizens across the West Bank and Gaza - two geographically-divided areas that Israel captured in a 1967 war and which are home to 5.2 million Palestinians.

Israel controls all entry and exit points to the West Bank and most of the coastal and land boundaries of the Gaza Strip, apart from a narrow border adjoining Egypt in the south.

Both Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade on the coastal strip, citing security fears about the Islamist militant group Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since 2007.

Palestinians and rights groups have accused Israel, a world leader in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including the Palestinian populations of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in their inoculation programme.

Israeli officials have said that under the Oslo peace accords, the Palestinian Health Ministry is responsible for vaccinating people in Gaza and parts of the West Bank where the PA has limited self-rule.

The PA began administering vaccines to health workers in the West Bank on Feb. 2, after receiving a small shipment of Moderna Inc vaccines from Israel.

Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Sonya Hepinstall

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