Israel says it will loan Palestinians money after highest-level talks in years

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel will lend the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority more than $150 million after the sides held their highest-level meeting in years, Israeli officials said on Monday, while playing down prospects of any major diplomatic breakthrough.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has overall responsibility for the Israeli-occupied West Bank, travelled to the Palestinian self-rule area of the territory for previously undisclosed talks on Sunday with President Mahmoud Abbas.

A source close to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the premier had approved the Gantz-Abbas meeting and deemed it a “routine” matter. “There is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be one,” the source told Reuters.

U.S.-sponsored talks on founding a Palestinian state stalled in 2014. The Gantz-Abbas meeting took place as Bennett, a nationalist who opposes Palestinian statehood, returned from his first talks with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington.

PA official Hussein Al Sheikh said the talks with Gantz included “all aspects” of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Abbas coordinates West Bank security with Israel. Both sides are wary of Hamas Islamists who seized the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory, from Abbas in 2007.

But Israel chafes at stipends the PA pays to militants jailed or killed in attacks on Israelis. In a protest measure, the Bennett government last month withheld $180 million from 2020 tax revenues it collected on behalf of the PA. A Gantz spokeswoman said that policy was unchanged.

The 500 million shekel ($155 million) loan was meant to help “with vital PA functions” and would be repaid in 2022 out of future tax revenues collected by Israel, the spokeswoman said.

A White House statement said Biden, during his talks with Bennett on Friday, reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “underscored the importance of steps to improve the lives of Palestinians”.

Bennett did not mention Palestinians in public remarks at the White House that focused largely on arch-enemy Iran’s nuclear program.

Gantz, a centrist in Bennett’s coalition government, has called in the past for resumption of a peace process with the Palestinians, who aspire to a state of their own in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Middle East war.

But any renewed movement on the issue could shake the foundations of Bennett’s government of left-wing, rightist, centrist and Arab parties that in June ended the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister.

In a sign of friction within the coalition, Mossi Raz, a legislator from the left-wing Meretz party, said dismissal of prospects for renewed peace talks by the Bennett source was “outrageous.”

“A peace process is an Israeli interest,” Raz wrote on Twitter.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Howard Goller)

Crossing the COVID chasm between Israel and the Palestinian Territories

By Zainah El-Haroun and Adel Abu Nimeh

JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) – As a Palestinian living in Jerusalem, Ismail Daiq is used to negotiating the dividing lines between communities: the daily commute to his Jordan Valley date farm involves crossing a checkpoint on his way home.

Now the coronavirus pandemic has created another fault line for him to navigate: the stark difference between access to vaccines in Israel and in the Palestinian territories.

Living within the Israeli health system, Daiq, 62, has already received his second COVID-19 vaccination in a country that is a leader in the world’s inoculation drive.

But his Palestinian siblings and 95-year-old mother in Jericho are still awaiting a vaccine rollout that has only just begun under the Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited sovereignty in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Daiq is eligible for vaccination because he became a Jerusalem resident two decades ago when he married a woman from the city.

The rest of his family, friends and employees do not qualify, because they only have West Bank identity papers that do not let them pass through the Israeli checkpoints that control entry to the city.

So when the date farmer travels each day into the Palestinian territories, he is uncomfortably aware that while he feels safe, his loved ones are still at risk from the virus.

“I feel guilty, I feel very sad, because I want all my family safe,” Daiq told Reuters.

“When you see that you can get these services, the vaccination, and all of the family, they can’t get this vaccination, you feel that there is a difference between you and your family.”

Although Israel and the Palestinian Authority coordinate on security issues, political relations have foundered. Negotiations last broke down in 2014.

In January, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in their inoculation program.

Israeli officials have said that this is the job of the Palestinian authorities.

“If it is the responsibility of the Israeli health minister to take care of the Palestinians, what exactly is the responsibility of the Palestinian health minister?” Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told the BBC last month.

While Israel has so far vaccinated a third of its 9 million citizens, the Palestinian Authority received its first batch of 2,000 vaccines – supplied by Israel – on Monday. West Bank health workers received the first shots.

Daiq said he tried to avoid the subject with his family, because his mother kept asking him when she would be inoculated.

His brother Ibrahim, 60, said that he wished good health to “every person on this land” but that there was a sense of unfairness among Palestinians.

“Because of this, my natural rights as a human being, me and the rest of the people living in the West Bank and Gaza, considering we are a country living under occupation, we should also have the right to benefit from this vaccination.”

The West Bank, where 3.1 million Palestinians live, has reported 101,221 coronavirus cases, with 1,271 deaths. Gaza, with a population of two million, has registered more than 51,000 cases with 523 deaths. Israel has reported 663,665 coronavirus cases and 4,888 deaths.

(Reporting by Zainah El-Haroun and Adel Abu Nimeh in Jericho; Additional reporting by Estelle Shirbon in London; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Egypt limits Gaza passage after Palestinian Authority quits border crossing

A Palestinian Hamas-hired police officer checks the documents of people upon their return from Egypt, at Rafah border crossing in the southern Gaza Strip January 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – Egypt blocked Palestinians from entering the country from Gaza on Tuesday after Palestinian Authority (PA) personnel pulled out of the Rafah border crossing and Hamas officers took their place.

The dispute over the border stems from a rift between the Western-backed PA and Hamas Islamists who took control of Gaza more than a decade ago in a brief civil war.

Human rights groups say Rafah has been the sole exit point from Gaza for an estimated 95 percent of its population of 2 million. Citing security concerns, Israel maintains tight restrictions on Palestinian movement at its border crossings.

PA employees were deployed to Gaza’s border crossings with Israel and Egypt in 2017, a move that largely opened up Rafah for two-way traffic after Egyptian mediation led to a Palestinian reconciliation deal, which has since faltered.

On Sunday, the PA announced its pullout from Rafah, accusing Hamas of undermining its operations and detaining some of its workers. Since May, the crossing has been operating daily after sporadic openings for many years.

Upon arriving in Gaza, Hani Abu Sharekh told Reuters he hoped Egypt would soon resume full operation of the facility to allow passengers out of the coastal enclave.

“There is no alternative to Rafah crossing, it is the only window for most of our people to travel and to seek treatment and education,” Abu Sharekh, 48, said after returning from a trip to Cairo where his wife had received medical treatment.

Hamas said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the PA and has imposed a series of economic sanctions on Gaza to press the group to cede power, was destroying prospects for unity.


A Palestinian official who maintains close contacts with Egypt said Cairo had decided to open Rafah crossing only to Palestinians returning to Gaza after the PA personnel withdrew.

Egypt’s restriction, the official said, showed its “disappointment at the faltering of the 2017 reconciliation agreement”. But an Egyptian official in Cairo said he did not expect Rafah to be shut completely.

“Egypt recognizes the importance of the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the Rafah crossing is an important access point for Palestinians,” the official said, adding that his country would not abandon its mediation efforts.

Brigadier-General Yehya Hammad, the Hamas-appointed director of the crossing, told Reuters his men completed their deployment and were ready to operate the passage.

After they took up their posts, the body of a Palestinian who had died in Cairo and two women accompanying the coffin were allowed to enter Gaza. The women’s passports were stamped by Hamas officers. The first bus with passengers from Egypt then arrived, with more expected later in the day.

“We hope the Egyptian side will open the crossing permanently as it did in the past to allow stranded patients, students, residents of third countries and humanitarian cases to travel,” said Hammad, standing in the passport hall.

(This has been refiled to add the word ‘not’ that was dropped in paragraph 12.)

(Additional reporting by Cairo newsroom, Editing by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, William Maclean)

Anger as Palestinian Authority cuts Gaza salaries and pays late

Public servants of the Palestinian Authority queue to receive their salaries outside a bank in Gaza City May 3, 2018. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – The Palestinian Authority cut salaries for its staff in Gaza by 20 percent on Thursday and failed to make up for skipping the previous month’s pay, leaving civil servants in the impoverished territory fuming they were pawns in a factional power struggle.

Some 38,000 civil servants in the Gaza Strip learned of the new disruptions to their incomes upon arriving at their banks on payday, intent on withdrawing cash ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins on May 16.

Last month, they were not paid at all. Many were hoping for two months pay this month, but instead received a reduced rate of a single month’s pay, with no explanation.

PA salaries in the other Palestinian territory, the Israeli-occupied West Bank, were paid in full.

Islamist group Hamas seized control of Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to clamp down on the territory, where 2 million people live under a de facto blockade with the world’s highest unemployment rate.

In an Egyptian-mediated bid to end the rift and reunite the two Palestinian territories, Hamas said last year it would cede the territory’s control to Abbas’s authority. But many Gazans still feel like they are being used as pawns in a power-struggle between the two groups.

“If they’ve failed to resolve this issue through dialogue, it can’t be resolved by (using) the poor employee,” said Eyad Kalloub, a 40-year-old civil servant, as he queued at his bank.

The Gaza wage cuts were the second round in as many years imposed by the Palestinian Authority, which still administers the payroll for civil servants in the territory run by Hamas.

In April 2017, Abbas slashed Gaza salaries by 30 percent. He has also slashed PA staff numbers in Gaza from 60,000 last year, by ordering early retirement for nearly a third of employees.

Palestinian Authority officials said at time that those moves were meant to pressure Hamas to relinquish Gaza control. However, last month they blamed the latest hold-up in wages on technical problems.

Economists said the PA cuts would shrink the tax revenue collected in Gaza by Hamas – which it uses to pay 40,000 employees it has hired in the enclave since 2007.

That exacerbates Hamas budgetary shortfalls caused by Egypt’s closure of smuggling tunnels from its Sinai peninsula to Gaza. The Islamist faction had collected tax on goods brought in through the tunnels.

More than half of Gazans depend on international aid, and 43.6 percent of workers are unemployed, the highest rate in the world. Basic utilities such as water purification and power have deteriorated.

Israel, which has fought three wars in Gaza in the decade since Hamas took over, bars a range of goods that it says could have military uses from entering the territory, making reconstruction difficult and costly.

Jamal Abu Gholy, 38, a civil servant, came to his Gaza bank hoping to draw on his April salary, only to learn that it had not been deposited. Instead, he owed the bank for an overdraft.

“What shall I do about Ramadan?” he asked, thinking of the festive meals which Muslims break their daily fasting over the course of the month. “I can’t just put out cheese and jam. We tell President Abbas: please show mercy towards us.”

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Suspect in Palestinian assassination attempt among four dead in Gaza shootout: Hamas

Palestinian security forces loyal to Hamas take up positions during an operation to arrest the main suspect in an assassination attempt against Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, in the central Gaza Strip March 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Hamas said its security forces in Gaza shot dead on Thursday the main suspect behind an attempt to assassinate the Palestinian prime minister, a bombing that threatens to unravel its reconciliation agreement with the West Bank-based government.

Two members of the Hamas security forces and one accomplice of the suspect also died in the shootout, the Hamas-led Gaza interior ministry said.

The bombing of Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah’s convoy in Gaza last week dealt another blow to efforts to implement a unity deal between the two main Palestinian factions – Islamist Hamas, which dominates Gaza, and Fatah, the main party in the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The motorcade Hamdallah and Palestinian security chief Majid Faraj was attacked on March 13 shortly after it entered Gaza from neighboring Israel. They were uninjured.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had blamed Hamas for the explosion.

After Thursday’s raid, a spokesman for Hamdallah’s government questioned Hamas’s version of events and again accused the group of bearing “full criminal responsibility” for the assassination attempt.

“Once more, Hamas is going along the same path of … fabricating weak stories that make no sense,” the spokesman, Youssef Al-Mahmoud, said.

More than a decade after Hamas fighters drove the Palestinian Authority out of Gaza, Egypt has been brokering a reconciliation deal under which the PA would again assume administrative and security control in the territory of two million people.

Hamdallah has been spearheading those efforts on behalf of the PA, with both sides still divided over how to share power in Gaza, where Hamas is still the strongest armed force.

Abbas has argued that the assassination attempt proved that the agreement was failing and that Hamas could not be trusted.

In a statement, the Hamas-run Interior Ministry in Gaza said its security forces investigating the assassination attempt had surrounded a hideout in the central region of the enclave and came under fire after demanding the suspects surrender.

It said a man named Anas Abu Khoussa, whom it identified as the prime suspect in the bombing, was killed in the ensuing shootout, along with an accomplice and two Hamas security men.

The ministry did not say whether Abu Khoussa was affiliated with any militant group.

Abbas has offered no evidence of the involvement of Hamas in the attempt against Hamdallah’s life. But he said he did not trust Hamas to investigate the incident honestly and that there had been “zero” progress in the reconciliation.

Hamas seized the Gaza Strip from forces loyal to Fatah in 2007.

The Palestinian reconciliation effort is opposed by Israel, which considers Hamas, a group dedicated to its destruction, an implacable foe. U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014, in part over a unity deal that year between the PA and Hamas, as well as other issues.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Ori Lewis and Peter Graff)

Greek Parliament Votes to Recognize Palestine as a State

Greece’s parliament is urging the country’s government to recognize Palestine as a state.

The move came as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attended Tuesday’s session, according to a news release. While parliament approved a resolution asking Greece’s government “to speed up all necessary procedures towards the recognition of the State of Palestine,” the government still has to take that formal step. There’s no indication when or if that action will actually occur.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, who also attended the session, called the gesture “a very important and historical step” in a news release. Addressing parliament, Abbas expressed gratitude for the vote, which he said sent “a message of support and solidarity” to Palestinians.

The resolution was approved one day after Abbas told reporters in Athens that Palestine would begin to issue “State of Palestine” passports before the end of 2016.

The Greek resolution notes that the country “has steadily supported the two-state solution,” which favors creating a Palestinian state separate from Israel. Such a state would be based on 1967 borders and have East Jerusalem as its capital, according to the adopted resolution.

Al-Jazeera reported that multiple other European parliaments have passed similar resolutions.

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely, condemned the action, telling French news agency AFP that Abbas was continuing chase “recognition which has no meaning in practice.”

“Instead of (Abbas) ceasing to incite and fund terror, he is following a flawed path that will lead him nowhere,” AFP quoted the deputy foreign minister as saying.

In September, the State of Palestine flag was raised at United Nations headquarters in New York. Israel dismissed that action as a photo opportunity.