JERUSALEM, Israel – Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Monday announced several initiatives aimed at strengthening the Palestinian Authority in its rivalry against the Hamas terror group.
The announcement came a day after Gantz met face-to-face with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the first high-level meeting between the two sides in years. The pair discussed security and economic issues during their surprise meeting on Sunday, signaling a possible shift following the near-complete breakdown in communication between Palestinian and Israeli leaders.
After the meeting, Gantz confirmed on Monday that Israel plans to loan $150 million to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank – biblical Judea and Samaria. The money will be repaid with tax funds Israel normally collects for Palestinians.
Israel will also authorize work permits for an additional 15,000 Palestinians to work in Israel.
Additionally, the country will legalize thousands of undocumented foreign nationals who are married to Palestinians living in the West Bank. Hussein Al Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official, said an initial deal had been reached to resolve the status of some 5,000 families.
Gantz said Israel is taking these gestures to weaken Hamas and increase Israel’s security.
“The stronger the Palestinian Authority is, the weaker Hamas will be,” Gantz was quoted as telling Israeli military correspondents Monday. “And the greater its ability to govern is, the more security we’ll have and the less we’ll have to do.”
While the PA rules Palestinian areas in the West Bank, Israel and the PA are concerned Hamas is gaining power there. Hamas, which is dedicated to Israel’s destruction, has ruled Gaza since 2007, when it seized control from PA faction.
Former Israeli Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon told CBN News that while coordination between the PA and Israel is necessary, he believes the high-profile meeting was out of line.
“We have to remember that President Abbas still supports terrorism. They pay salaries to convicted terrorists and I don’t think he deserved the respect he got from Minister Gantz,” said Danon.
Danon also believes there may have been pressure from Washington, since the meeting happened shortly after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with President Joe Biden.
However, Bennett’s office said the meeting between Gantz and Abbas was not an indication that Israel will restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Bennett has insisted that he will not hold peace negotiations and does not support the creation of a Palestinian state, but he also says he will not annex parts of the West Bank.
“This government will neither annex nor form a Palestinian state, everyone gets that,” he told The New York Times last week. “I’m prime minister of all Israelis, and what I’m doing now is finding the middle ground — how we can focus on what we agree upon.”
Bennett has said he supports improving the Palestinian economy and keeping Abbas stronger than Hamas.
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid confirmed this move doesn’t mean negotiations are resuming. Still, Lapid says, Israel is not interested in weakening the Palestinian Authority.
“I am a devoted believer in the two-state solution. I think this is the right solution, but we’ll have to admit to the fact this is not feasible in the current situation,” said Lapid.
Israel also eased its blockade over the Gaza Strip this week after tightening restrictions following the 11-day war in May. Israel did so to allow construction materials into Gaza and aid to impoverished families living there.
Israel says its 14-year blockade, which restricts the movement of goods and people in and out of Gaza, is needed to keep Hamas from obtaining weapons used against Israeli civilians. Critics say the blockade, which has crippled the economy, amounts to collective punishment.
“We are not interested in going back to Gaza. We’re not interested in choking Gaza in sieges,” said Lapid. “We just want to make sure nobody’s firing rockets and missiles on us…and if Hamas will guarantee peace and quiet, they can guarantee also the economy, a functioning economy and humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza.”