Israel announces a series of gestures towards the Palestinians, a day before the arrival of Biden

The army’s liaison with the Palestinians said on Tuesday that Israel would implement a series of measures aimed at facilitating the daily life of the Palestinians, a day before the visit of US President Joe Biden 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 Palestinians and undocumented 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 identity papers.

Many have come from abroad to marry a Palestinian and live in Palestinian towns. But Israel does not recognize the legal right for Palestinians to live with foreign spouses in territory it controls – a procedure known as “family reunification”.

Israel says it grants visas in “exceptional humanitarian circumstances”. But in practice, the case had been frozen for more than a decade, leading to sporadic demonstrations in Ramallah by the families concerned.

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

Palestinians and their spouses demonstrate demanding West Bank residency cards outside the PA’s Civil Affairs Commission in Ramallah. (Courtesy of Alaa Mutair)

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

About 330,000 Palestinians and 450,000 Israeli settlers live in the 60% 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 plans for some 4,500 Jewish settlement homes. Permits for the Palestinians were never approved, however, and it was unclear whether the six new projects were those 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 in which only dozens of permits for Palestinians were approved compared to the nearly 25,000 houses that were built for the 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, which was scheduled to take place days after the trip of the American president.

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

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

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

The Ministry of Defense has approved a tentative plan to eventually increase the number of permits in Gaza to 20,000, a dramatic and unprecedented increase. As of mid-2021, only 7,000 Palestinians in Gaza had work or business permits in Israel.

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

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

Finally, COGAT said Israel will open the Salem crossing in the northern West Bank – near the Israeli town of the same name – for Israeli Arabs to enter the Palestinian city of Jenin.

The Salem crossing has been largely closed to civilian traffic in recent years, leading COGAT to label it a “new” entry into the West Bank.

Other measures were under review by COGAT and were to be announced separately if approved by the authorities.

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

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

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

Ofir Sofer, Knesset Member for Religious Zionism, claimed the series of decisions leading up to Biden’s visit are “surrender to terror, no less and no more.”

Thursday’s meeting between Gantz and Abbas “took place under positive conditions”, Gantz’s office said in a statement. The two men discussed civil cooperation and “complexities of the period ahead in Israel,” Gantz’s office said, apparently referring to the election cycle.

Gantz met Abbas on two other occasions in the past year, including at Gantz’s Rosh Ha’ayin residence. Both meetings were followed by Israeli announcements responding to certain Palestinian demands.

Meanwhile, there have been regular clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinians in the West Bank in recent months, following 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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