Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Tuesday Israel is planning on increasing the number of Palestinian workers who can enter Israel from the Gaza Strip.
“We intend to expand [our] civilian humanitarian policy, including an immediate increase in the quota of [Palestinian] workers [who can enter Israel],” Gantz said during a tour of the southern frontier with military officials.
In October, as part of ongoing ceasefire efforts with Hamas, Israel expanded the work permit program to allow up to 10,000 workers into the country. It was not immediately clear how much further Israel intended to broaden the program.
Israel and Egypt have placed tight controls on movement in and out of Gaza for nearly a decade and a half. Israel says the blockade is necessary to prevent an even greater threat from Gaza’s Hamas rulers, who have fought repeated wars with the Jewish state.
Rights groups, however, lament the blockade’s impact on civilians in the impoverished enclave. Roughly half of Gazans are unemployed, including many young people with college degrees.
“If, along with maintaining relative quiet, we also make advances in the path to returning the Israeli prisoners and missing persons, we will be able to expand this policy and develop the Gaza Strip,” Gantz added, referring to two Israeli civilians and the remains of two IDF soldiers being held by the terror group in the coastal enclave.
After an 11-day war in May last year, Israel imposed tightened restrictions on Gaza. Israeli officials repeatedly vowed that “there’s no going back to the way things were” on policy toward the enclave. In the months since, although tensions on the southern border have risen and fallen, matters have largely returned to the previous status quo.
Still, Israel has said it will not consent to a full reconstruction of Gaza without a prisoner deal between the two sides. Hamas holds captive two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, as well as the bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul.
“Unfortunately, the residents of Gaza are captives of Hamas leaders who deprive them of a better livelihood and future for their children. The leaders of Hamas and the residents of Gaza will also be the ones to bear responsibility, if the peace in Gaza or elsewhere is disturbed,” Gantz warned.
The Shin Bet security agency has repeatedly warned about the risks posed by Gazans entering Israel, after several cases of Palestinians abusing their permit to spy or conduct other activity for Hamas in recent years.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.