Israel announces series of gestures to Palestinians, a day before Biden’s arrival

Steps include legalizing status of 5,500 undocumented PA residents, six new housing projects in Area C, adding 1,500 Gaza work permits, opening ‘new’ West Bank crossing

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Palestinians wait to receive their national IDs at the civil affairs office in Gaza City, January 5, 2022. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)
Palestinians wait to receive their national IDs at the civil affairs office in Gaza City, January 5, 2022. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

The military’s liaison to the Palestinians said Tuesday Israel will implement a series of measures intended to ease Palestinians’ daily life, a day before US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and the West Bank.

The announcement came following a meeting between Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah last week.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) said Israel would legalize the status of 5,500 undocumented Palestinians and foreigners living in the West Bank and Gaza. Tens of thousands of Palestinians and foreign nationals are believed to live in the West Bank and Gaza without proper documentation.

Many arrived from abroad to marry a Palestinian and live in Palestinian cities. But Israel does not recognize a legal right for Palestinians to live with foreign spouses in territory it controls — a procedure known as “family unification.”

Israel says it grants visas in “exceptional humanitarian circumstances.” But in practice, the matter had been frozen for over a decade, leading to sporadic protests in Ramallah by families affected.

Over the past year, Israel has legalized the status of 12,000 undocumented Palestinians and foreigners, according to COGAT.

Palestinians and their spouses protest to demand West Bank residency cards in front of the PA’s Civil Affairs Commission in Ramallah. (Courtesy: Alaa Mutair)

Other measures announced by COGAT included approving six Palestinian housing projects in Area C of the West Bank, where Israel maintains civilian control.

Roughly 330,000 Palestinians and 450,000 Israeli settlers live in the 60 percent of the West Bank that makes up Area C, according to figures from the UN and Israeli authorities respectively.

In May, an official told The Times of Israel that the Defense Ministry would advance 1,000 Palestinian homes in Area C after greenlighting projects for some 4,500 Jewish settlement homes. The permits for Palestinians though were never approved and it was unclear whether the six new projects were the ones referenced three months ago.

The move appeared to be part of Gantz’s policy of advancing housing plans for both populations in the West Bank after more than a decade during which only dozens of permits for Palestinians were approved in comparison to the nearly 25,000 homes that were built for settlers.

In a separate move ahead of Biden’s visit, Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s office said it would delay a meeting to advance housing projects for Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, that was scheduled to take place days after the US president’s trip.

Biden is set to land at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday for a visit that will include Israel and the West Bank, before leaving for Saudi Arabia on Friday.

A view of construction in the West Bank settlement of Efrat on January 26, 2017. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

COGAT also said Israel would increase the number of work permits for Gazan Palestinians by 1,500 to reach a total of 15,500.

The Defense Ministry has signed off on a tentative plan to eventually raise the number of Gaza permits to 20,000, a dramatic and unprecedented increase. In mid-2021, just 7,000 Palestinians from Gaza had permits to work or trade in Israel.

Defense officials say allowing more Gazans to work in Israel will pump much-needed income into the impoverished coastal enclave while encouraging stability.

Palestinian men gather to apply for work permits in Israel, at Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip, on October 6, 2021. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Lastly, COGAT said Israel will open the Salem crossing in the northern West Bank — near the Israeli town of the same name — for Arab Israelis to enter the Palestinian city of Jenin.

The Salem crossing has been largely shuttered for civilian traffic in recent years, leading COGAT to brand it as a “new” entrance to the West Bank.

Further measures were being examined by COGAT, and were to be announced separately if approved by officials.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. (AP/Collage)

In response to the gestures, opposition lawmakers Yoav Kisch of Likud and Orit Strock of Religious Zionism — co-chairs of the Knesset Land of Israel Caucus — criticized the government for the decisions.

“The ‘confidence-building measures’ of the Lapid-Bennett government toward the Palestinians are destructive measures toward the Israeli electorate,” the Kisch and Strock said in a statement. They accused the current ministers of being “busy saving the remnants of their political careers” instead of keeping their electoral promises.

Religious Zionism Knesset member Ofir Sofer claimed that the series of decisions ahead of Biden’s visit are “a surrender to terror, no less and no more.”

Thursday’s meeting between Gantz and Abbas “was conducted on positive terms,” Gantz’s office said in a statement. The two discussed civilian cooperation and “the complexities of the upcoming period in Israel,” Gantz’s office said, apparently referring to the election cycle.

Gantz met with Abbas two other times in the past year, including in Gantz’s residence in Rosh Ha’ayin. Both meetings were followed by Israeli announcements fulfilling some Palestinian requests.

Meanwhile, there have been regular clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians in the West Bank in recent months, after a series of deadly terror attacks against Israelis earlier this year.

Jacob Magid and Times of Israel Staff contributed to this report.

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