By JOSEPH KRAUSS
JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel said Tuesday it would grant legal residency to 4,000 Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, a gesture to the Palestinian Authority that will allow people who have lived under severe restrictions for years to get official IDs.
It’s one of a series of gestures announced after a rare high-level meeting in August between Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas aimed at strengthening the PA, which administers parts of the occupied West Bank and coordinates with Israel on security.
Israel is trying to bolster the increasingly unpopular and autocratic PA in order to weaken its militant Hamas rivals, who rule the Gaza Strip. Other gestures include loaning some $155 million to the cash-strapped PA and authorizing an additional 15,000 permits for Palestinian laborers to work in Israel and its settlements.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett is opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state and has shown no interest in reviving peace talks, which stalled out more than a decade ago. Israel is also continuing to build and expand settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, territories it captured in the 1967 war that the Palestinians want for their future state.
But Israeli officials have vowed to take steps to improve the Palestinian economy and daily life in order to reduce frictions.
“The stronger the Palestinian Authority is, the weaker Hamas will be,” Gantz was quoted as saying after his meeting with Abbas. “And the greater its ability to govern is, the more security we’ll have and the less we’ll have to do.”
The Israeli defense body that oversees civilian affairs in the territories said it would approve the registration of 1,200 Palestinians who have been living in the West Bank for many years but are not listed in the Palestinian population registry. It will approve a change of address for 2,800 Palestinians who moved to the West Bank from Gaza prior to 2007, when Hamas seized power.
Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official who serves as the liaison with Israel for civilian affairs, confirmed that a “first batch” of 4,000 names had been approved and said the PA was working to secure more.
Israel, which controls all access to the occupied West Bank, must approve any changes to the Palestinian population registry, which is administered by the PA. When the second Palestinian uprising broke out in 2000, Israel restricted new registrations to children under 16 with a resident parent.
That and other Israeli policies have left an estimated tens of thousands of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza without legal status, severely limiting their freedom of movement. They include foreign nationals — mainly Palestinians from other countries — who married Palestinians in the territories and have families there.
Palestinians living in the occupied West Bank who are registered in Gaza are meanwhile at risk of deportation. Israel maintains dozens of checkpoints within and around the West Bank.
Human Rights Watch referred to Israel’s restrictions on Palestinian residency in a lengthy report earlier this year accusing it of the international crime of apartheid. The nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers living in the occupied West Bank have Israeli citizenship and face no similar restrictions.
Jessica Montell, the head of HaMoked, an Israeli rights group that assists Palestinians, said the latest move was welcome but did not go far enough.
Israel has previously approved tranches of applications for legal status as goodwill gestures to the PA. In 2008, it granted legal status to some 32,000 Palestinians following several petitions filed by HaMoked on behalf of families, Montell said.
“To my mind the real headline is tens of thousands of people are living with no status and Israel is not fulfilling its legal obligation to grant them status,” she said.