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(photo credit: Channel 1)
With intensive discussions under way with the US about how to restart negotiations with the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced Wednesday that the Allenby Bridge between the West Bank and Jordan will now be open 24 hours a day, to accommodate an increased volume of Palestinian commercial activity.
Netanyahu's comment came at a meeting he convened of the Ministerial Committee on Improving the Economic Situation of the Palestinian Residents of Judea and Samaria, and on the same day the Foreign Ministry held a briefing on recent steps Israel has made to ease access and movement in the West Bank.
While there is some speculation that both the ministerial meeting and the briefing were tied to the negotiations with the US on what is needed to restart the diplomatic negotiations, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon denied there was any link, saying that since information had begun "trickling out" about steps Israel was taking in the West Bank, it was thought it would be better to present the information in an organized fashion.
Nevertheless, at the ministerial meeting, Ayalon said "the large-scale removal of checkpoints and roadblocks is of long-range political importance due to the position of the international community and world opinion."
Ayalon said that Israel was still waiting for a response to its call to start immediate negotiations with the Palestinians, and although a positive response has not been forthcoming, it was determined to move ahead where it can on the economic sphere.
Ayalon said at the press briefing that Israel has taken "major steps to spur the Palestinian economy, despite the security risks involved."
For instance, he said, Israel has removed two-thirds of the check points in the last three months and that 14 remain in operation, out of 41 just a few months ago.
In addition, he said, all checkpoints around the major West Bank cities have been removed. IDF Civil Administration Operations Branch head Lt.-Col. Sharon Biton said that a Palestinian driving from Jenin to Hebron today will only have to pass through two checkpoints, a considerable change from a few years ago.
Ayalon said that Israel has also substantially increased the number of permits issued to Palestinian businessmen and VIPS able to come and go from the West Bank to Israel, and that there were now some 75,000 Palestinians working in Israel, a 25% increase from the previous year.
According to Ayalon the aggregate result of these steps has been an 8 percent growth in the West Bank's economy, according to the World Bank, decreasing unemployment, and a significant increase in tax revenue.
Tourism to the West Bank tripled last year, reaching some 1.2 million, with the hotels in the West Bank now running at 75 percent capacity, he added.
Biton said there is now NIS 13 billion in annual trade between Israel and the West Bank, with 80 percent of that being goods imported into Israel from the West Bank.
At the ministerial meeting, Regional Development Minister Silvan Shalom briefed the ministers on three major projects his ministry is promoting:
â€¢ The planning and development of a light industrial zone for tourism and services near Bethlehem, with the assistance of the French government.
â€¢ A major industrial zone in Jalameh in the Jenin area, with the assistance of the German government.
â€¢ A zone for the export and processing of agricultural products in Jericho, with the assistance of the Japanese government.
Shalom said that progress has been made, and years-old obstacles have been removed.
"It is government policy to promote economic peace and I call for increased cooperation from the Palestinian side on this issue," he said.