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IDF chief: Our offer to scale back West Bank activity is not in lieu of peace talks

Gadi Eisenkot says Palestinians’ dire economic straits driving many of the attackers, urges permits for laborers

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 15, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on March 15, 2016 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot said a recent covert Israeli offer to end IDF operations in parts of the West Bank was part of an effort to bolster security measures and is unconnected to formal peace initiatives.

The back-channel talks were a first step toward “enhancing the effectiveness of security in the region while examining the possibility of reducing the number of IDF forces operating in the Palestinian-controlled Area A of the West Bank,” Eisenkot told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday.

“The ongoing dialogue is taking place on the ground and is unconnected to negotiations on a political level,” he said.

On Monday, Palestinian sources told The Times of Israel the proposal — news of which was first published by the Haaretz daily — was raised as part of ongoing talks between Palestinian Authority and Israeli officials in recent weeks regarding the continuation of security coordination in the West Bank.

PA officials rejected the offer as contrary to the Oslo Accords, and demanded that Israel present a comprehensive timetable for a full cessation of military activities in Palestinian-controlled territories.

Speaking to The Times of Israel on Monday, sources familiar with the talks said that while the Israeli side aimed to merely improve the security situation in the West Bank, the PA wanted to progress toward a political process aimed at a final-status agreement.

During his appearance in the Knesset Tuesday, Eisenkot also discussed the economic situation in the West Bank, saying it played a “significant” role in the recent surge of violence, and warning that banning Palestinian laborers from working inside Israel or West Bank settlements would only serve to exacerbate tensions.

He underscored that some 65 percent of IDF battalion troops were deployed in the West Bank, so “we aren’t skimping on manpower in protecting civilians.” He added that “the IDF is preparing for a possible escalation in the situation, such as a major attack, in any case.”

Maintaining security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security forces was an interest shared by both parities, he said.

IDF soldiers patrol the streets of Ramallah in 2008 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi / Flash 90)
Illustrative: IDF soldiers patrol the streets of Ramallah in 2008 (photo credit: Issam Rimawi / Flash 90)

As per agreements reached under the Oslo Accords, Palestinians maintain civilian and security control of territories in the so-called Area A, including Ramallah, Jericho and other major Palestinian population centers. However, Israeli forces often stage raids in those areas, often with the tacit support of the Palestinians, to arrest terror suspects, among other purposes.

Even as diplomatic ties have withered and amid the ongoing wave of violence and Palestinian terrorism, officials in Israel and the PA have expressed interest in continuing security coordination.

Both sides see the security cooperation as key to keeping Hamas and other terror groups that could threaten Fatah’s control of the PA in check.

Avi Issacharoff and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.

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