Defense Minister Benny Gantz promised a NIS 100 million loan and legal status for 9,500 Palestinians when he held a rare meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to avert a violent West Bank uprising.
“Only those who are responsible for sending soldiers into battle know how deeply the obligation to prevent it runs,” Gantz tweeted after the late Tuesday parley in his Rosh Ha’ayin home.
“This is how I have always acted, and this is how I will continue to act,” he added.
“We discussed the implementation of economic and civilian measures and emphasized the importance of deepening security coordination and preventing terror and violence for the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians,” Gantz stated.
Both Gantz and Abbas came under a barrage of heavy domestic political criticism for holding their second face-to-face meeting in half a year. They last spoke in August when Gantz visited Ramallah.
The meeting “is a challenge [and] the last chance before an explosion [and] finding ourselves at a dead end,” tweeted the head of the PA General Authority for Civil Affairs Hussein al Sheikh, who participated in a portion of the parley.
It was “a serious [and] bold attempt to a political path based on international legitimacy [and] an end to the escalation against Palestinians,” Sheikh tweeted.
Israeli and Palestinian officials also discussed the tense situation in the West Bank “due to the practices of settlers against Palestinians,” he wrote.
In addition the meeting “dealt with the importance of creating a political horizon that leads to a political solution in accordance with international legitimacy solutions,” he explained.
Earlier in the week, Sheikh met in Cairo with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and Jordanian Foreign Minister Aymen Safadi. Egypt has been brokering indirect truce talks between Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.
The Rosh Ha’ayin parley took place amid an escalation of violence in the West Bank and concern about renewed Gaza violence.
Earlier this month Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank killed Yehuda Dimentman, 25.
On Wednesday Palestinians in Gaza shot and lightly wounded a 33-year old military contractor who was doing maintenance work on the security barrier along the Gaza border. The IDF targeted a number of Hamas posts in Gaza in response.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the Gantz-Abbas meeting was “important for both Israel’s security and its international status” particularly given that ‘security and civilian coordination with the PA is essential to Israel’s security.”
President Isaac Herzog, who himself spoke to Abbas in September and has met with him in the past, lauded the meeting.
“As a person who believes in dialogue…I certainly think this dialogue is positive and I think the meeting itself is important and right,” Herzog said, “especially at a time when there is a security-challenged in Judea and Samaria and security cooperation is an essential part of the war on terror. I also think we need to find paths for dialogue with the neighboring nation in any way that can improve all our lives.”
United States Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides tweeted his support for the meeting.
“May this meaningful diplomacy lead to many more such confidence-building measures for the New Year. It benefits us all!” he exclaimed.
It is unusual but not unprecedented for Abbas to cross the Green Line into Israel. He last did so in 2016, to attend the funeral of former president Shimon Peres. He also came to Jerusalem in 2010 to meet with former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At Tuesday’s meeting PA head of General Intelligence Majad Faraj joined Sheikh. The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Rassan Alian participated in the Rosh Ha’ayin parley. A portion of the conversation was private and held just between Gantz and Abbas.
“Gantz informed… Abbas of his intention to continue advancing confidence-building measures in economic and civilian areas, as was determined in their previous meeting,” the Defense Ministry said.
The two men discussed the possibility of lowering the handling fees charged for fuel purchases, examining the possibility of shipping containers through the Allenby Bridge, and more.
Following the meeting, Gantz approved additional “confidence-building measures,” including providing legal status to 6,000 Palestinians in the West Bank considered to be illegally residing there and also legalizing the status of 3,500 Gaza residents. Gantz also approved a NIS 100 million loan, against the eventual transfer of tax payments to the PA worth that same sum.
All imports to the PA go through Israeli checkpoints, and Israel collects VAT and tariffs for the PA, as per the Oslo Accords. Those funds are the largest source of income for the PA. Israel also collects income tax and health insurance funds for Palestinians who work for Israelis.
Israel has held back some tax funds it collects to penalize the PA for payments to imprisoned terrorists and families of attackers who were killed by security forces. In July, nearly NIS 600 million ($184 m.) was withheld after the Palestinian Authority paid NIS 597m. ($183 m.) in “indirect support for terror in 2020.”
Asked about the seeming contradiction between docking tax money to the PA while promising to release some of that money, an Israeli defense official said: “We support giving the PA certain humanitarian aid and strengthening them economically while saying we absolutely don’t support giving money to terrorists.”
The government will continue to withhold the taxes and tariffs it collects for the PA – $185 million in 2020 – because it must do so, by law.
Gantz also approved 600 businessman cards (BMCs) for Palestinian business people, as well as 500 additional permits for business people to enter Israel with their cars, and dozens of VIP permits for PA senior officials.
It’s expected that the implementation of the various measures discussed during the meeting would add hundreds of millions of shekels to the budget of the Palestinian Authority each year.
Israel is concerned about the possible fiscal collapse of the PA and Gantz discussed that matter with the Palestinian delegation.
In the aftermath of the meeting, MK Ofir Sofer (Religious Zionist Party) attacked Gantz for meeting with Abbas.
He warned that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government was quietly and without fanfare leading the country to Oslo II. “It’s time to wake up before it’s too late,” Sofer said.
MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) said it was important to maintain coordination between the two nations to maintain the possibility to achieve peace for “the day when the Palestinians will have a partner in Jerusalem who wants peace.”
Right-wing attacks against the defense minister show a Pavlovian “racist hatred for the Palestinian people,” he added.
Hamas also strongly condemned the meeting between Gantz and Abbas, dubbing it a “stab to the intifada” (uprising) in the West Bank.
“This intimate meeting and the exchange of gifts that took place reveals once again the great decline that the Palestinian Authority and its presidency has descended into,” Hamas said in a statement. “Hamas condemns such meetings that serve only the enemy.”
According to Hamas, the Palestinian people “deserve an honest and loyal national leadership capable of protecting and defending their national rights and expressing their aspirations.”
The Gaza-based terror group said that the meeting will deepen divisions among the Palestinians, a reference to the ongoing dispute between Hamas and the ruling Fatah faction headed by Abbas.
Senior Hamas official Izzat al-Risheq accused Abbas of “disregarding” the Palestinians, especially those held in Israeli prisons.
Risheq described Abbas’s visit to the home of Gantz as “disgraceful” and a “crime” against the Palestinians.
Anna Ahronheim and Lahav Harkov contributed to this report.