Israel yet to carry out steps to boost PA that it vowed to implement before Ramadan

WASHINGTON – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is yet to follow through on a series of small measures to boost the Palestinian Authority that it promised to implement before the holy month of Ramadan, which began last week.

In mid-February, Netanyahu’s office indicated that it would be lowering the so-called “blue tax” it charges the PA on fuel transfers from three percent to 1.5%; increase the percentage of revenue it transfers to Ramallah from the fees it collects from travelers at the Allenby border crossing between the West Bank and Jordan; and to expand the list of tax-free imports that he facilitates on behalf of the PRA.

However, four Israeli, Palestinian and US officials told The Times of Israel this week that none of the three steps have been completed. The Biden administration is increasingly worried about the lack of follow-up since the PA’s financial situation is at an all-time low, a senior US official said.

“Even the smallest promises that Netanyahu gave us have not been fulfilled,” said a senior PA official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The PA and US officials blamed Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, whose office is responsible for signing off on such measures, but was withholding them. Smotrich’s office declined to comment on the record.

An Israeli official said there is still a need for a formal review of the steps promised by the Prime Minister’s Office by Finance Ministry officials, even though the measures have been requested by the PA for years.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a conference in Jerusalem, February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A second Israeli official said the measures are at an advanced stage of implementation. “Each one has a different pace of progress, but they have been done according to the prime minister’s direction, and all the Ministers are committed to [seeing them through].”

Repaying PA debt?

At the beginning of March, PA Minister of Civil Affairs and Secretary General of the PLO Hussein al-Sheikh told The Times of Israel that Israel had committed at the February 26 regional summit in Aqaba to transfer millions of dollars in tax revenue that it had withheld. from the PA. .

“They promised at Aqaba that all the funds would be transferred, but at the moment we have received nothing,” al-Sheikh said in a rare interview with an Israeli news outlet.

A pledge to transfer withholding tax revenue was not included in the joint statement signed by the sides and released to the public after Israeli, Palestinian, US, Egyptian and Jordanian officials met in Jordan for the first political meeting such for years.

Regarding the tax revenue, the senior PA official said that “millions are ours [dollars] being held by the Israeli side, which was promised both before Aqaba and at Aqaba itself [release them].”

Responding to al-Sheikh’s claim, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, who headed the Israeli delegation at the Aqaba meeting, said at the time that the issue of tax revenue was not discussed at all. [in Aqaba]. It will be discussed in the future by the civil committee established by the [Aqaba] meeting.”

Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in a photo posted by al-Sheikh on May 12, 2020. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi attend at the weekly cabinet meeting in the capital. Minister’s office in Jerusalem, Israel on December 29, 2019. (Photo by Abir Sultan/Pool via AP)

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel on Thursday that the civilian committee has not met yet, but clarified that the monthly tax transfers have indeed gone through.

Smotrich’s office also confirmed this while clarifying that Israel withholds millions of shekels from each monthly transfer to offset the salaries the PA gives to terrorists and their families.

Additional PA claims regarding debts owed to it will be discussed in the joint Israeli-Palestinian civil committee, the Israeli official said, although they did not say when the panel would be convened.

The US official said that some countries urged Israel to implement the steps to strengthen the PA when the parties met for a follow-up regional summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt last week, but that “progress appeared to be minimal”.

The PA is also under pressure to follow through on its own commitments to expand its security presence in the northern West Bank, which has become a hotbed for Palestinian terror groups, US and Israeli officials said, adding that Ramallah is being pushed also in public. Condemn attacks on Israelis.

Representatives of the United States, Egypt and Jordan in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh also stressed the importance of Israeli and Palestinian ministers refraining from inflammatory rhetoric, according to the US official.

What has been done

While the three measures to bolster the PA have yet to be implemented, Israel implemented a series of other measures aimed at easing the Palestinian way of life more directly ahead of Ramadan.

Muslims offer prayers on the first Friday of Ramadan outside the Dome of Rock at the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in the Old City of Jerusalem, Friday, March 24, 2023. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

In a statement on March 20, the military liaison to the Palestinians – the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) – said that Palestinian women of all ages, children up to 12 years of age, and men over 55 year old from the West. Bank will be allowed to enter Israel to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Friday without a current entry permit.

As for Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, an unspecified number of Palestinians will be allowed to visit Jerusalem between Sunday and Thursday during Ramadan. COGAT said that such permits will be given to women over 50 years of age and to men over 55 years of age.

In addition, COGAT said West Bank Palestinian visits to family members in Israel were also to be approved, as well as visits by foreigners to Palestinians in the West Bank, all subject to security approval.

West Bank Palestinians were also allowed to fly abroad during Ramadan through Ramon Airport. Israel first allowed Palestine to use the airport in southern Israel in August.

COGAT said the working hours of crossings and various checkpoints in and out of the West Bank would be extended during Ramadan.

Allenby to extend hours starting Sunday

On Sunday, Israel will begin operating the Allenby crossing on a nearly full-time basis after more than a year of pressure from the Biden administration, an Airport Authority spokesperson revealed to the Times of Israel.

Passengers arrive on the Jordanian side of the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan on July 19, 2022. (Khalil Mazraawi/AFP)

The crossing will open on Sunday at 8 a.m. and will remain open until Friday at 3:30 p.m. On Saturday, it will operate from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

From November 6 to 10, a pilot program tested the crossing’s ability to run every hour of the day after years of operating under more limited hours, resulting in long lines almost exclusively for Palestinian pedestrians.

Queues to cross into Jordan can last hours or up to a whole day, creating a headache for Palestinians, who do not have to travel through Ben Gurion Airport. As a result, they fly in and out of Jordan’s Amman airport, but first they have to pay a series of fees to cross the border.

The rollout of Allenby’s expanded hours has been delayed several times, drawing attention from the Biden administration, which announced over the summer that the crossing would begin permanently 24/7 in September.

Israeli authorities initially informed their American counterparts that they did not have the manpower to meet the US deadline and suggested considering a pilot program in November instead. That trial ended successfully and the Airport Authority has since been working to recruit enough staff to cover the increased hours.

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