The Israeli government is set to increase the number of work permits for West Bank Palestinians by 16,000 amid calls by Israeli officials to strengthen the ailing Palestinian Authority economy.
According to the Defense Ministry, the Israeli military body charged with handling Palestinian civilian affairs — known by its acronym COGAT — informed senior Palestinian officials on Wednesday of the intention to offer additional permits.
The plan was first announced by Regional Affairs Minister Issawi Frej, who said he had developed the initiative along with Housing Minister Ze’ev Elkin. But while the proposal was originally set to be approved by the government this past Sunday, it was subsequently delayed due to “technical issues” with the Defense Ministry, Frej’s office said.
Around 87,000 Palestinians work legally in Israel, according to official figures, and another 35,000 work in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The vast majority work in agriculture and construction.
Most of the new permits — some 15,000 — will be issued specifically for construction workers, according to the proposal. Another 1,000 will be granted for Palestinians who work at hotels across Israel.
Tens of thousands more illegally cross through gaps in the West Bank security barrier on a regular basis. Occasionally, Israeli forces are said to turn a blind eye, while at other points they crack down on the trespassers.
The workers’ incomes are an important source of funding for the Palestinian economy, which has been battered by diminished international aid and a tough pandemic year.
The government is scheduled to approve the plan next week, according to to both Frej and Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office. Freij has pledged more such civilian-led economic programs could be en route.
“This step is the first in a series of steps currently being considered in talks between Palestinian and Israeli officials aimed at helping to shore up the economic fortitude of the Palestinian Authority,” Frej said.
Frej has met repeatedly with senior Palestinian officials over the past few weeks in an attempt to expand civilian cooperation between the two sides. Relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been poor for years, with ties mostly being managed by the Israeli military and intelligence services.
“This measure will strengthen the Israeli and Palestinian economies, and will largely contribute to the security stability in the area of Judea and Samaria. Economic stability is the key to preserving security in the region,” said COGAT head Ghassan Alian in a statement.
In the aftermath of the recent escalation between Israel and the Hamas terror group, which rules the Gaza Strip, Israeli officials have repeatedly said that they hope to strengthen the beleaguered Palestinian Authority.
“The most desirable change in my view is to strengthen the Palestinian Authority as much as possible, and not to let Hamas be the one that sets the agenda, neither in the area of the Gaza Strip nor in Gaza itself,” Gantz said in the aftermath of the May fighting.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, have reportedly issued a list of confidence-building measures they hope will be implemented — including more permits for workers, a renewed diplomatic mission from Ramallah in East Jerusalem, and building permits for Palestinians in areas of the West Bank where Israeli approval is required for construction.