Israel’s Gantz hosts Palestinian leader Abbas to discuss ‘confidence-building’ measures

Bel Trew

The Independent  /  December 29, 2021

The pair met in Tel Aviv to discuss security and civil matters.

Israel’s defence minister has approved what he called a slew of “confidence-building measures” after hosting Mahmoud Abbas in the Palestinian president’s first meeting inside Israel in a decade.

Benny Gantz held the rare talks with Mr Abbas at his home in Tel Aviv, where they discussed security coordination between Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank.

It marked the second meeting between the two leaders in six months and sparked faint hopes of some movement in the long-dead peace negotiations.

Palestinian official Hussein al-Sheikh said that at Tuesday’s talks they discussed the “importance of creating a political horizon” for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In a statement on Wednesday, however, the Israeli Defence Ministry spoke only of “confidence-building measures” including easing the entry of hundreds of Palestinian business people and VIPs to Israel and approving residency status for thousands in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It also included the transfer of tax payments to the PA.

Gantz himself stopped short of mentioning peace negotiations, which broke down in 2014 after US-backed talks collapsed.

“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,” he said.

The measures are, however, a small step forward.

Israel controls the Palestinian population registry, leaving thousands without legal status, massively impacting their freedom of movement.

The Israeli Defence Ministry said after the meeting that Gantz approved registration for some 9,500 Palestinians, including 6,000 in the West Bank,  who had been living in the territory, captured by Israel in the 1967 war, without official status.

Another 3,500 people from Gaza would also receive residency documentation, the ministry said.

Israel also collects hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth in taxes on behalf of the PA – a vital source of funding – as part of the interim peace agreements signed in the 1990s. However, Israel has withheld funds over the PA’s giving of stipends to thousands of families that have had relatives killed, wounded or imprisoned in the conflict, a move which Israel says is funding terrorism.

The transfer of tax payments to the PA will be a much-needed funding booster for the cash-strapped Palestinians.

However, the Israeli government remains bitterly split on the issue of the Palestinians and Palestinian statehood. Prime minister Naftali Bennett’s coalition includes a wide spectrum of political opinions, from right-wing supporters of settlements to parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel.

Mr Bennett is himself a supporter of settlements, which are deemed illegal under international law, and vocally opposed to a future state of Palestine.

His government has so far shown no interest in reviving peace talks, but has said it wants to reduce soaring tensions between the two sides by improving living conditions in the occupied West Bank.

Yair Lapid, the country’s foreign minister, came out in support of the meeting, saying on Twitter that it was “important for both Israel’s security and its international standing.

“Security and civilian coordination with the Palestinian Authority is essential to Israel’s security and is led responsibly and professionally by the Minister of Defence.” He added.

But the meeting drew criticism from Israeli opposition, including members of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, the largest in parliament.

Hamas, the militant group which rules Gaza, also slammed the meeting, saying it divided Palestinians at a time when it claimed there were increased settler attacks on the Palestinian people in the occupied West Bank.

Recent months have seen a surge in violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank and Palestinian attacks on Israelis in occupied east Jerusalem and the West Bank.

In a separate incident, the Israeli military said a civilian was injured by gunfire from the Gaza Strip, the first instance of cross-border violence along the border of the Palestinian enclave in months. The military said it responded with tank fire at multiple Hamas militant positions in the Gaza Strip.

Bel Trew  –  Middle East Correspondent