Israel has halted all shipments of COVID-19 vaccines abroad, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said on Thursday, adding that he was looking into the legality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to send vaccines to foreign countries.
Mendelblit said he was told by Israel’s National Security Council all shipments have been stopped, pending a legal review of the scheme, which critics argue Netanyahu has no authority to approve.
National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat has asked Mendeblit to rule whether Netanyahu can order the transfer of vaccines purchased with Israeli tax-payers' money without a cabinet approval.
Gantz tweeted in support of the attorney general's decision, writing that "the move carried out by Netanyahu was undemocratic, and he sidestepped regulations."
Earlier on Thursday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz asked Netanyahu to immediately stop the process of sending coronavirus vaccines purchased by Israel to foreign countries – and to convene the security cabinet for an urgent meeting on the matter.
In a letter to Netanyahu, the national security adviser and attorney general, Gantz wrote that "while the supply of vaccines to medical staff in the Palestinian Authority was transferred in an orderly fashion, paired with the need for the vaccines here in Israel, supplying vaccines to other countries around the world has never been brought up for discussion in the relevant forums.”
“The vaccines are the property of the State of Israel and when you said that ‘unused vaccine doses have accumulated,’ while most of the population of Israel has not yet been vaccinated with the second dose, is false,” said Gantz.
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On the same day, however, Honduran Health Minister Alba Consuelo Flores said his country already received its first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines from Israel.
Senator Bernie Sanders also criticized the Israeli government for distributing COVID-19 vaccines to countries with which it has bolstered relations in recent years before sending vaccines to Palestinians.
"As the occupying power, Israel is responsible for the health of all the people under its control," Sanders tweeted. "It is outrageous that Netanyahu would use spare vaccines to reward his foreign allies while so many Palestinians in the occupied territories are still waiting."
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister's Office announced that Israel will send a few thousand doses of the vaccines to several countries with which it has bolstered its relations in recent years – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Guatemala and Honduras.
Israel is also expected to send additional vaccines to healthcare workers in the West Bank, as well as another unnamed country, as confirmed by the Prime Minister's Office. The exact number of vaccines being distributed internationally and to the West Bank has not been given.
Guatemala moved its Israel embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, while Honduras has announced its intention to move their embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. The Czech Republic has said it plans to open a "diplomatic office" in Jerusalem. In 2019, Hungary opened a "trade office" in the city as well.
Israel agreed to purchase hundreds of thousands of Russian-made COVID vaccines that will be given to Syria as part of a deal to release an Israeli woman who crossed into Syria, according to foreign reports. The agreement between Jerusalem and Moscow to secure her release included a commitment that the vaccine transfer would remain secret.
Last month, Israel delivered 5,000 coronavirus vaccines to the West Bank for healthcare workers, following a recommendation from the Defense Ministry and the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.
Around two weeks ago, the Palestinian Authority submitted a request to Israel asking to send one thousand Sputnik V vaccines to medical teams in Gaza, from the tens of thousands of vaccines expected to reach the West Bank from Russia. Israel has not yet made a decision regarding the request.
Reuters contributed to this report.