In what qualifies by now as a confidence-building measure, Defense Minister Ehud Barak spoke Tuesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, sending him best wishes for the end-of-Ramadan Id al-Fitr holiday. The two discussed economic and security coordination between the PA and Israel. In the past, Barak met regularly with PA Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, but recently there has been a dearth of top-level meetings between delegates from the two sides. So the Barak-Abbas discussion yesterday symbolized an effort undertaken by Israel's defense establishment to preserve cooperation between the sides and maintain defense-economic cooperation in a period of comatose diplomatic talks, and continuing tensions between Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
The PA, it bears mentioning, consistently attempts to impair Israel's international standing, while Israel publicly criticizes the Palestinians for condoning anti-Israel incitement on official PA media outlets. Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu avoid direct discussions, using intermediaries Yitzhak Molho and Saeb Erekat to deliver messages to each other, and Abbas and Netanyahu rarely miss opportunities to upbraid each other in public. At the same time, though, second-tier Israeli and PA officials in defense and economic posts enjoy excellent relations. These ties feature almost daily meetings, with top Israeli security officials frequently visiting Ramallah, while their Palestinian counterparts are not infrequently found in Tel Aviv offices. These visits bypass the media spotlight in the PA and Israel.
Israel and the PA share an interest in preserving the unprecedented level of security that continues today on the West Bank, and this interest is presumably the cause of such close cooperation between the second-rank Israeli and PA officials. This story of cooperation between Israeli and PA figures is well captured by end-of-Ramadan images in Tel Aviv: yesterday, thousands of Palestinians from all parts of the West Bank, from Jenin in the north to Hebron and Bethlehem in the south, enjoyed the final hours of Id al-Fitr on the Tel Aviv beaches. Just a few years ago such an image would have seemed unimaginable in view of continuing strife in the West Bank and violent tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.
However, the quiet that has since taken hold, reinforced by close cooperation between officials from the two sides, allowed hundreds of thousands of Palestinians this month to make their first visit to Israel in years.
PA figures indicate that during the Ramadan month, some 300,000 Palestinians entered Israel in coordinated visits. Israeli officials cite a lower yet nonetheless staggering figure of 200,000. Ironically, this trend caused significant economic damage to Palestinian vendors who lost untold customers - local Palestinians who took their business to Israel.
Palestinians in Tel Aviv
The easing of restrictions on entry permits to Israel were unlikely to impress critics in the international community or human rights organization workers. However, it is impossible to dismiss the implications of these images of Palestinian visitors to Tel Aviv beaches, or the Malha shopping mall in Jerusalem, during the Ramadan holiday. Steps taken by Israeli officials - such as allowing younger Palestinian men to enter the country - were less media-friendly than dramatic gestures such as prisoner releases, yet these changes may have significantly improved the atmosphere between the two sides, as well as the feelings of average Palestinians.
In the West Bank, the army's Central Command took down some checkpoints, including one at the northern exit from Jericho; for the first time in years, cars passed through this busy spot in the city unimpeded. Also, Israeli officials in the territories made the gesture of granting an additional 5,000 permits for Palestinian laborers to work in Israel, particularly in construction. Israeli officials believe that today close to 100,000 Palestinians are employed in Israel - this figure includes people employed on Jewish settlements - and that 60,000 of them workers have legal permits. Also, this month Israeli officials authorized the transfer of tax revenue to the PA so that Palestinians who work for the PA will receive monthly salary payments.
Thanks to activities undertaken by PA networks, and to security-economic coordination with Israel, the West Bank has become an island of stability in the region during a period of political turbulence and tumult.
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