Israel's defense minister approved a raft of measures aimed at improving relations with Palestinians on Wednesday following a rare meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Israel.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz met with Abbas at his private residence in a Tel Aviv suburb late Tuesday night. It was the first time Abbas met an Israeli official inside Israel since 2010. The two discussed security coordination between Israel and Abbas' Palestinian Authority (PA), which administers pockets of the occupied West Bank.
Gantz's office said he approved "confidence-building measures," including the transfer of tax payments to the PA, the authorization of hundreds of permits for Palestinian merchants and VIPs, and approving residency status for thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Israel collects hundreds of millions of dollars worth of taxes on behalf of the PA as part of the interim peace agreements signed in the 1990s.
The tax transfers are a key source of funding for the cash-strapped Palestinians, but Israel has withheld funds over the PA's payment of stipends to thousands of families that have had relatives killed, wounded or imprisoned in the conflict. Israel says the payments incentivize terrorism, while the Palestinians say they provide crucial support to needy families.
Israel has approved residency for some 9,500 Palestinians and controls the Palestinian population registry. Over the years, its policies have left an estimated tens of thousands of Palestinians without legal status, severely limiting their freedom of movement, even within the occupied territories. Israel granted legal status to some 4,000 Palestinians in October.
During the meeting at Gantz's home in the central town of Rosh HaAyin, the two discussed the "importance of creating a political horizon" to bring an end to the decadeslong Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestinian official Hussein al-Sheikh said. The last round of peace talks collapsed in 2014.
The pair also discussed "the tense conditions on the ground due to the practices of settlers" as well as "many security, economic and humanitarian issues."
"We discussed the implementation of economic and civilian measures and emphasized the importance of deepening security coordination and preventing terror and violence – for the well-being of both Israelis and Palestinians," Gantz said on Twitter, according to Reuters.
Their talks mark the highest-level public meetings between Abbas and an Israeli minister since Israel's new government was formed in June. But few see prospects for a resumption of peace talks with Israel's coalition government headed by hawkish Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who opposes Palestinian statehood.
His government has shown no interest in reviving peace talks, which broke down more than a decade ago, but has said it wants to reduce tensions by improving living conditions in the West Bank. Recent months have seen a surge in violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians in the West Bank and Palestinian attacks on Israelis in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Palestinians seek an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza with a capital in East Jerusalem. Israel captured those territories during the 1967 Middle East war.
The Palestinians have limited self-rule in the West Bank. Israel annexed East Jerusalem, a move not recognized internationally, and in 2005 pulled out of Gaza, which is now controlled by the Palestinian resistance group Hamas.
Hamas, which has fought several wars with Israel, condemned the Abbas-Gantz talks, saying in a statement that it went against the "national spirit of our Palestinian people."
"This behavior by the leadership of the Palestinian Authority deepens the Palestinian political divide, complicates the Palestinian situation, encourages those in the region who want to normalize relations with the occupier and weakens the Palestinians' rejection of normalization," Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem said, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Israel's right-wing opposition party Likud also condemned the latest meeting, saying that, "Concessions dangerous for Israel's security were only a matter of time."
Likud added a dismissive reference to Bennett's governing coalition, which includes an Israeli Arab party for the first time.
"The Israeli-Palestinian government has put the Palestinians and Abbas back on the agenda ... it is dangerous for Israel," Likud said.
Gantz's meeting with Abbas follows a visit to the region by U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
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