As part of a wider effort to boost Israeli-Palestinian economic ties, the Finance Ministry is planning to improve the much-criticized conditions at crossings where tens of thousands of Palestinians enter Israel daily from the West Bank to work, a ministry spokesperson told The Times of Israel on Thursday.
The plan to increase bilateral economic ties initially calls for new work permits to be granted for 7,800 additional Palestinian laborers, some of whom will be employed in skilled fields such as high-tech, medicine and construction planning.
To facilitate the expected increase of workers crossing into Israel, the plan immediately allocates NIS 10 million (some $2.6 million) to improve crossings, and calls for “upgrading and expanding” the crossings to a level “suitable for regular workers.”
The Finance Ministry’s plan also allocates up to NIS 100 million ($26 million) in 2016 for implementing the entire economic-improvements plan, which also includes boosting public transportation in the West Bank and a professional training program for Palestinian laborers employed in the construction field in Israel.
Some of the funds from the total NIS 100 million will also be used to improve the crossings, according to the spokesperson.
The funds will be transferred to the IDF Civil Administration, the body which oversees civilian activity in the West Bank. The use of the funds will be coordinated with the Defense Ministry. A spokesperson for the Civil Administration said that the money had not yet been transferred.
The plan, which was passed as a resolution on March 8, has yet to take effect. The Civil Administration will be required to report progress on a quarterly basis.
“The administrative work of the relevant government departments is currently being prepared in order to formulate the plan in question,” the Finance Ministry said.
The difficult conditions at the checkpoints has long been an issue criticized in mainstream Israeli media, but far-right Agricultural Minister Uri Ariel gave the issue new life on April 15 when he criticized Palestinian suffering at the crossings as “shameful and a disgrace to the State of Israel and to the security establishment.”
A few days after Ariel’s statement, Channel 2 aired a feature story about Palestinian hardship at the Qalandiya checkpoint, which sees more traffic than any other crossing due to its location between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
The Channel 2 report (Hebrew video story), titled “Like animals,” showed hundreds of men, young and old, as they arrive at the crossing at 4 a.m. to ensure they can get to their workplaces in Israel on time.
The reporters followed the men as they passed through a small, narrow, metal passageway to reach Israel. A journey that should take half an hour can sometimes stretch to three or four hours due to procedures at the crossing, the report said.
The Finance Ministry said its plan is not a reaction to the recent criticism of conditions at the crossings. Rather, the plan is the result of a series of meetings between senior officials in the Israeli and Palestinian treasuries in late 2015 and early 2016, which took place amid months of Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
Increased economic ties between the two sides is seen by Israel’s security establishment as one way to improve the security situation on the ground. Palestinians who work in Israel are far less likely to commit attacks, some Israeli security officials maintain.
In addition to — and separate from — the Finance Ministry’s plan, in early February Israel’s security cabinet approved an outline for a plan to grant work permits to 30,000 Palestinian laborers from the West Bank. The plan, developed as a way to stem Palestinian violence, is still in the early stages of bureaucratic processes, a Civil Administration spokesperson said.
Currently, 58,000 Palestinians have Israeli work permits, although experts assess that about 120,000 Palestinians from the West Bank are actually employed — both legally and illegally — by residents of the Jewish state.
At midnight on Thursday, Israel closed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip for 48 hours, amid fears of Palestinian attackers during the Jewish holiday of Passover, which begins Friday night. The move came in the wake of a Hamas suicide bombing on a Jerusalem bus on Monday.
Entering and exiting the West Bank and Gaza will be forbidden for Palestinians during those two days, with the exception of “humanitarian, medical and exceptional cases,” according to a statement from the Israel Defense Forces.
AFP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report