Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office passed along a “stern message” to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urging him to condemn Tuesday night’s deadly terror attack in Bnei Brak, two officials familiar with the matter confirmed.
Less than an hour after receiving the message, Abbas issued a condemnation — a rare step that was not taken by the PA leader after terror attacks in Beersheba and Hadera that took over the past week.
The Israeli security establishment has been pushing a series of moves to ease restrictions on Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza ahead of the holy month of Ramadan that begins in early April. These include additional entry permits for elderly Muslim worshipers to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque, expanding the hours of such permits, and other measures aimed at easing freedom of movement for Palestinians, which is generally more limited, an Israeli defense official said.
During US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel earlier this week, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced that the government would increase the number of permits for Gazans to work in Israel by an additional 8,000, bringing the total to 20,000 permits for the Hamas-controlled territory, which has seen one of its quietest periods in over a year.
But such measures are in jeopardy following Tuesday’s attack in Bnei Brak, in which four civilians and one police officer were killed, an official told The Times of Israel, adding that the gestures would have been at even greater risk had Abbas kept silent.
In addition to Gantz, a US official also reached out to Abbas’s office urging him to issue a condemnation, a source familiar with the matter said, confirming a Channel 12 report.
While insisting that he was not making comparisons between various attacks, a Palestinian official speaking on condition of anonymity noted that the PA president was unlikely to gain support from the public, which hasn’t reaped the benefits from the “diplomatic path” that Abbas is promoting. “And yet he made the decision to speak out, even though Bennett has never condemned the killing of our civilians, which happens far more frequently.”
Fifty-one Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of 2022. Many of them were shot dead in clashes with security forces, but others such as Omar As’ad were killed under far more questionable circumstances. While a handful of senior Israeli officials issued condemnations after the 78-year-old suffered a lethal heart attack after being bound, gagged and abandoned in a half-constructed building by Israeli troops, Bennett was not one of them.
Eleven Israeli citizens were killed in three attacks during the past seven days alone, in what has been the deadliest week since 2006, when a suicide bombing left an equal number of civilians dead in Tel Aviv. The first two attacks were carried out by Islamic State-backing Arab Israeli citizens but Tuesday’s attacker was a Palestinian from the West Bank — a former security prisoner with ties to Abbas’s Fatah movement.
In his statement Tuesday night, Abbas “expressed his condemnation of the killing of Israeli civilians tonight, emphasizing that the killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians only leads the situation to deteriorate.”
Notably, Abbas avoided claims that Israel’s occupation played a role in the ongoing wave of violence — a linkage Ayman Odeh, leader of the Arab Joint List party, was careful to make in his statement.
On the one hand, the Israeli security establishment has credited cooperation with Abbas’s security forces for frequently keeping Israelis out of harms way and foiling potential Palestinian terror attacks. But Abbas has also come under immense criticism for the PA’s welfare policy, which includes stipends to security prisoners who have killed Israeli civilians as well as to the families of slain attackers.
Critics dub the policy “pay to slay.” To many Palestinians, though, solidarity with those imprisoned for various acts of opposition to Israeli rule, including violence, is a key tenet of the national movement. The payments are also seen as a crucial form of welfare for families where the breadwinner is imprisoned by what they view as an unjust military system.
Unlike Abbas, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza hailed the Bnei Brak attack, albeit while avoiding taking responsibility for it. Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a coalition of armed groups loosely affiliated with the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah party, did so before dawn on Wednesday.
President Isaac Herzog is slated to travel to Jordan on Wednesday to discuss efforts to lower tensions in Jerusalem ahead of Ramadan. Tuesday night’s attack did not appear to have derailed the plan and Herzog will be the fourth senior Israeli official to travel to Jordan this month. Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Abdullah on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid did so on March 10 and Public Security Minister Omer Barlev met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi last week.
Each of the meetings focused largely on the same goal — preventing violence in Jerusalem akin to the type that boiled over into last May’s 11-day Gaza war.
The confluence of Ramadan, Passover, and Easter in April has been a point of concern for the Biden administration as well, with US and Israeli officials telling The Times of Israel last month that Washington has asked Jerusalem to take steps to lower tensions and prevent an outbreak of violence.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report