Palestinian president, Israeli defence minister hold rare talks amid violent clashes along Gaza border

Defence Minister Benny Gantz met Abbas in Ramallah late Sunday for what were reportedly the first direct talks between an Israeli cabinet member and the 86-year-old Palestinian leader in several years

FP Staff September 10, 2021 22:14:10 IST
Palestinian president, Israeli defence minister hold rare talks amid violent clashes along Gaza border

Representative image. AP

Israel's defence minister has met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for a rare high-level meeting, but a source close to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett insisted his government had no plans to reboot peace talks.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz met Abbas in Ramallah late Sunday for what were reportedly the first direct talks between an Israeli cabinet member and the 86-year-old Palestinian leader in several years.

The meeting, which Gantz's office said focused on "security policy, civilian and economic issues", came just hours after Bennett returned from Washington where he met US President Joe Biden.

Biden had said he would urge Bennett to find ways "to advance peace and security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians".

According to a defence ministry statement, Gantz told Abbas that Israel "seeks to take measures that will strengthen the PA's economy".

"They also discussed shaping the security and economic situations in the West Bank and in Gaza," and agreed to "continue communicating further", it added.

A spokeswoman for Gantz confirmed reports in the local media, according to which the defence minister told Abbas that Israel would provide a half-billion shekel ($155 million, 132 million euros) loan to the Palestinian Authority.

The loan would be repaid in the form of deducting tax collections Israel normally hands the Palestinians.

A source close to Bennett said the meeting that he had approved focused on "issues between the defence establishment and the Palestinian Authority".

"There is no peace process with the Palestinians nor will there be" under Bennett's leadership, said the source who requested anonymity.

The Gantz-Abbas meeting also included the head of the Israeli military branch responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories, Ghasan Alyan, senior PA official Hussein Al Sheikh and Palestinian intelligence chief Majid Faraj.

Gantz's office said he and Abbas had held "a one-on-one meeting" after the broader talks.

Al Sheikh confirmed the meeting on Twitter, but the PA was not immediately available to comment on its substance.

Hamas vs Abbas

Bennett, 49, took office in June as head of an eclectic coalition in which his hawkish party holds only a handful of seats.

He is a long-standing opponent of Palestinian statehood and the former head of a council that lobbies for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

Jewish settlements in the West Bank are considered illegal under international law.

But despite Bennett's personal views, his government has sought to warm ties with the PA after relations effectively collapsed under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was in power from 2009 until June this year.

Netanyahu, also a pro-settlement right-winger long reviled by Palestinians, further alienated Abbas through his tight embrace of former US president Donald Trump, who was accused of extreme pro-Israel bias.

Palestinian division

Bennett's government has indicated a desire to boost the PA amid concern over a fresh conflict with Hamas Islamists who control Israeli-blockaded Gaza and are rivals of Abbas's secular Fatah movement.

An 11-day conflict in May between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip marked the worst hostilities in the area since 2014, and unrest has persisted despite an Egypt-brokered ceasefire.

An Israeli Border Police soldier shot during border clashes with Gaza nine days ago has died of his wounds, police said on Monday.

Police said Barel Hadaria Shmueli was critically wounded by a gunshot during the 21 August clash on the sidelines of a demonstration near the border fence separating the Hamas-run enclave and the Jewish state.

Hamas on Monday condemned the Abbas-Gantz meeting, charging that it "deepens Palestinian political division".

Abbas has tightened his hold over the PA since his election in 2006. He cancelled elections set for May and July that would have been the first Palestinian polls in 15 years.

The veteran leader cited Israel's refusal to allow voting in annexed east Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as their future capital.

But some Palestinian experts said Abbas balked when it seemed clear that Hamas was poised to rout Fatah at the polls.

Abbas's PA has also come under mounting global criticism over an alleged crackdown on internal opposition following the death in Palestinian custody of a prominent activist.

Fourteen members of the Palestinian security forces will face a military trial after being formally accused Monday over the killing of prominent activist Nizar Banat, whose death sparked protests and global condemnation.

Banat — a leading critic of the Palestinian Authority and its 86-year old president Mahmud Abbas — died in June after security forces stormed his home in the flashpoint city of Hebron and dragged him away.

A post-mortem found he had been beaten on the head, chest, neck, legs and hands, with less than an hour elapsing between his arrest and his death.

Banat's family has said it has no confidence in the PA's capacity to deliver justice, and called for an international probe.

But the PA, notably prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, has promised accountability, and ordered a full investigation.

Palestinian security service spokesman Talal Dweikat said Monday that 14 of the service's personnel have been formally accused of "beatings causing death, abuse of power and violations of security instructions."

Under the Palestinian justice system in the West Bank -- a territory occupied by Israel since 1967 -- a Palestinian military court will conduct the trial.

The United Nations and European Union last week expressed alarm over a spate of arrests targeting leading critics of Abbas and the PA.

Israel strikes Gaza 

The Israeli air force attacked two sites in Gaza on Sunday, the army said, after Gazans clashed with forces on the border and launched incendiary balloons into southern Israel.

The latest escalation came as Israel and Egypt continued to relax restrictions on commerce and travel imposed on the Gaza Strip, largely cut off by both countries since the Islamist movement Hamas seized the Palestinian enclave in 2007.

Israeli "fighter jets struck a Hamas military compound used for manufacturing weapons and training as well as an entrance to a terror tunnel adjacent to Jabalia," the Israeli army said.

"The strikes were in response to Hamas launching incendiary balloons into Israeli territory and the violent riots that took place yesterday," it said in a statement.

The army said both incidents were "examples of how Hamas continues to employ terror tactics and target civilians."

There were no reports from the Gaza Strip of any casualties caused by the Israeli strikes.

Speaking in Washington, where he had met with Biden, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he held Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas responsible for any unrest from the Palestinian enclave.

"As I have already said, our actions in Gaza will serve our interests," he told reporters before boarding a plane back to Israel.

"As far as I'm concerned, the address (of those responsible) has been and remains Hamas."

Rafah crossing fully reopens

On Saturday evening, two wildfires broke out in the Eshkol region near the Palestinian enclave, Israeli firefighters said.

Protests erupted later in the day, with the Israeli army firing tear gas and stun grenades as Palestinians burned tyres on the border between Gaza and Israel, an AFP reporter said.

The health ministry in Gaza said 11 Palestinians had been hurt in the clashes, three of them by live fire.

Hours earlier, Gazans laid to rest Omar Hassan Abu al-Nile, 12, who died of his wounds a week after being shot by Israeli forces during border clashes.

In 2018, Gazans began a protest movement demanding an end to Israel's blockade and the right for Palestinians to return to lands they fled or were expelled from when the Jewish state was founded in 1948.

The often-violent weekly demonstrations backed by Hamas sputtered as Israel killed some 350 Palestinians in the territory over more than a year.

Hamas and Israel then fought a devastating 11-day conflict in May, the worst between the two sides in years, which ended with an informal truce.

Incendiary balloons from Gaza have continued in the following months, with Israel blaming Hamas.

Israel has at the same time been easing restrictions on civilian life and commerce for the territory it has blockaded since 2007, when Hamas took power.

On Sunday, Egypt reopened the Rafah crossing with the Gaza Strip to allow Palestinians to exit, after having partially reopened on Thursday for travel into Gaza.

Rafah, Gaza's only gateway to the outside world not controlled by Israel, was shuttered on Monday by Egypt.

Egypt gave no reason for the move, but Palestinian sources in Gaza said it was over the rise in border violence with Israel.

With inputs from AFP

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