WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has yet to follow through on a series of small measures to boost the Palestinian Authority it promised to implement ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.
In mid-February, Netanyahu’s office leaked that it would be lowering the so-called “blue tax” that it levies from the PA on fuel transfers from three percent to 1.5%; raising the percentage of revenues it transfers to Ramallah from the fees it collects from travelers at the Allenby border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan; and expanding the list of tax-free imports that it facilitates on the PA’s behalf.
However, four Israeli, Palestinian and US officials told The Times of Israel this week that none of the three steps have been completed. The lack of follow through has the Biden administration increasingly worried since the PA’s financial state is at its weakest ever, a senior US official said.
“Even the most minimal of promises that Netanyahu has made to us have not been fulfilled,” lamented a senior PA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The PA and US officials blamed Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose office is responsible for signing off on such measures, but has been holding them up. Smotrich’s office declined to comment on the record.
An Israeli official said the steps promised by the Prime Minister’s Office still need to be formally reviewed by Finance Ministry officials, though the PA has requested the measures for years.
A second Israeli official said the measures are in an advanced stage of implementation. “Each has a different pace of progression, but they were made at the prime minister’s directive, and all of the ministers are committed to [seeing them through].”
Repaying PA debts?
At the beginning of March, PA Civil Affairs Minister and PLO Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh told The Times of Israel that Israel committed at a February 26 regional summit in Aqaba to transfer millions of dollars in tax revenues that it has withheld from the PA.
“They promised at Aqaba that they would transfer all of the funds, but as of now we haven’t gotten anything,” al-Sheikh said in a rare interview with an Israeli news outlet.
A commitment to transfer withheld tax revenues was not included in the joint communique that the sides signed and released to the public after Israeli, Palestinian, US, Egyptian and Jordanian officials met in Jordan in the first political gathering of its kind in years.
Regarding the tax revenues, the senior PA official said that there are currently “millions of our [dollars] being held by the Israeli side, which were promised both before Aqaba and at Aqaba itself to [release them].”
Responding to al-Sheikh’s claim, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, who led the Israeli delegation at the Aqaba meeting, said at the time that the issue of tax revenues “was not discussed at all [in Aqaba]. It will be discussed in the future by the civil committee that was established at the [Aqaba] meeting.”
An Israeli official told The Times of Israel Thursday that the civil committee has not yet convened, but clarified that the monthly tax transfers have in fact gone through.
Smotrich’s office confirmed this as well while clarifying that Israel withholds millions of shekels from each monthly transfer to offset the stipends that the PA grants to terrorists and their families.
Additional PA claims of debts that it is owed will be discussed in the joint Israeli-Palestinian civil committee, the Israeli official said, though they did not say when the panel would convene.
The US official said that several countries urged Israel to implement the steps to boost the PA when the parties met for a follow-up regional summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt last week, but that “progress appeared minimal.”
The PA is also being pressed to follow through on its own commitments to expand its security presence in the northern West Bank, which has become a hotbed for Palestinian terror groups, the US and Israeli officials said, adding that Ramallah is also being pressed to publicly condemn attacks on Israelis.
The US, Egyptian and Jordanian representatives in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh also stressed the importance of Israeli and Palestinian ministers refraining from inflammatory rhetoric, according to the US official said.
What has been done
While the three measures to boost the PA have yet to be actualized, Israel did implement a series of other measures aimed at easing Palestinian livelihood more directly ahead of Ramadan.
In a March 20 statement, the military’s liaison to the Palestinians — the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) — said Palestinian women of all ages, children up to the age of 12, and men above the age of 55 from the West Bank will be allowed to enter Israel to pray at Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Fridays without an existing entry permit.
For Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, an unspecified number of Palestinians will be allowed to visit Jerusalem between Sundays and Thursdays during Ramadan. COGAT said such permits will be given to women above the age of 50 and men above the age of 55.
Additionally, COGAT said visits by West Bank Palestinians to family members in Israel were also to be approved, as well as visits by foreigners to Palestinians in the West Bank, all of which are subject to security approval.
West Bank Palestinians were also given the approval to fly abroad during Ramadan via the Ramon Airport. Israel first allowed Palestinians to use the airport in southern Israel in August.
COGAT said that during Ramadan, the working hours of various crossings and checkpoints in and out of the West Bank would be extended.
Allenby to expand hours starting Sunday
On Sunday, Israel will begin operating the Allenby crossing on a nearly full-time basis after over a year of pressure from the Biden administration, a spokesperson for the Airports Authority revealed to The Times of Israel. US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, who led the administration’s effort on the issue, will be on site for Sunday’s grand opening.
The crossing will open on Sundays at 8 a.m. and remain open until Fridays at 3:30 p.m. On Saturdays, it will operate from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
From November 6 to 10, a pilot program tested the crossing’s ability to run at all hours of the day after years of operating under more limited hours, which led to long lines for the almost exclusively Palestinian pedestrians.
Queues to cross into Jordan can last hours or up to an entire day, creating a headache for Palestinians, who are barred from traveling through Ben Gurion Airport. As a result, they fly in and out of Jordan’s Amman airport, but first must pay a series of fees to cross the border.
The roll-out of Allenby’s expanded hours was delayed several times, drawing the ire of the Biden administration, which announced over the summer that the crossing would begin permanently running 24/7 in September.
Israeli authorities initially notified their American counterparts that they didn’t have the staffing capacity to meet the US deadline and proposed the idea of a pilot program in November instead. That trial finished successfully and the Airports Authority has since been working to recruit enough staff to accommodate the expanded hours.