with Mahmoud Abbas:
Changes to Israeli policy "on the ground"
Published: 24 February 2005
Briefing Number 134
Summary: Since the election of Mahmoud
Abbas as Palestinian leader on 9 January 2005, Israel
has taken several steps to meet Palestinian requirements.
These measures are intended to boost Abbas’s authority
among the Palestinian people, and this Briefing describes
eight of them. These changes in Israeli policy demonstrate
its willingness to take risks to build a better future,
and to do what it can to create conditions for future
diplomacy. The moves dispel the myth that Israel does
not wish to strengthen moderate forces in Palestinian
society. But many terrorist attacks are still being attempted
Background – the Palestinian election of January
Yasser Arafat died in November 2004. On 9 January 2005 Mahmoud
Abbas was elected Palestinian leader. There was a high turnout
of Palestinian voters for the election. Israel eased restrictions
on movement during the election to ensure that Palestinians
could reach polling stations (despite the real risk that terrorists
would exploit this easing of restrictions to attack civilian
International observers acknowledged that the election was
free and fair. US Democrat Senator Joseph Biden, who was present,
said that the elections “could be in the USA…. they
are very well-organised…” (Haaretz 9.1.05)
Mahmoud Abbas, in word and deed
In the run-up to his election, Mahmoud Abbas made statements
which alarmed many Israelis. He reiterated his call for an unconditional
right of return for Palestinian refugees. He used the expression
“the Zionist enemy”. And he stated that he would
not use force to restrain Palestinian violence against Israel.
Since the election, both his words and his deeds have moderated.
Israel has responded positively. It has taken several steps
to improve the life of Palestinians, which it characterises
as “goodwill gestures” or “confidence-building
These steps are designed to strengthen the perception of Mahmoud
Abbas as someone who can achieve improvements to the situation
“on the ground” for his people, through his relationship
with Israel. Here are eight measures which Israel has taken
since the election of Abbas (sources: Jerusalem Post, Haaretz,
Israeli Government and IDF announcements)
Agreement that Palestinian security forces should assume
responsibility for Northern Gaza area
In mid-January Israel agreed that Palestinian Authority security
forces should take responsibility for the Northern Gaza Strip.
Thousands of PA personnel moved into Northern Gaza, primarily
to thwart continued Qassam rocket attacks against the Israeli
town of Sderot, and other targets. For the previous two years,
Israeli forces had entered this area periodically, in order
to intercept Qassam squads (see Briefing 130 - Qassam Rockets
Attacks Against Israel).
Israel’s preparations to withdraw from Palestinian
Israel’s Defence Minister has repeatedly stated during
January and February that Israel wishes to withdraw from major
Palestinian town, in phases, during 2005, and transfer security
responsibility to Palestinian forces. The towns include Tulkarm,
Qalkilya, Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho, and at a later stage
Nablus, Jenin and most of Hebron. This will end the Israeli
military presence in these towns, which Israel reoccupied in
2002 (see Briefing 15 – Israel’s Reluctant Reoccupation
of Palestinian Towns). The pace of the withdrawals depends on
the extent to which terrorist-related activity in each town
Israeli declaration of an end to military activity
At the Sharm el-Sheikh summit between Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud
Abbas on 8 February 2005, Sharon declared an end to all Israeli
military activity against the Palestinians. Abbas undertook
to end all Palestinian attacks against Israel (though Hamas
and Islamic Jihad refused to be bound by that commitment). Israeli
officials stated that Israel would continue the “ceasefire”
provided the Palestinians took measures to end terrorism, and
they stated that Israel would only continue to take steps against
Palestinian so-called “ticking bombs” – ie
bombers en route to carrying out an attack.
Release of 500 Palestinian prisoners
On 21 February 2005 Israel released 500 Palestinian prisoners
and so-called “administrative detainees” from Israeli
jails, who were returned to their homes mainly in the West Bank.
A joint committee was set up between Israeli and Palestinian
officials to consider further prisoner releases. While Israel
refused to release Palestinians who were imprisoned for killing
Israelis, Palestinians demanded a release of all prisoners,
whatever the reason for their detention.
Families of terror victims in Israel were angered and distressed
by the release of prisoners.
End to targeted killings by Israel
For several years Israel has invoked the right of self-defence
and targeted Palestinian leaders who organise or initiate acts
of terror against Israeli civilians. On 28 January the Israeli
Chief of Staff ordered an end to targeted attacks, unless there
is an immediate threat by “active terrorist cells”.
Israel agreed to set up a joint committee with Palestinian security
officials to deal with the future of wanted Palestinian militants,
as and when a ceasefire takes hold.
Relaxation of restrictions and queuing time at West
On 17 February the Israeli Defence Minister ordered Israeli
soldiers to “facilitate a smoother passage” of Palestinians
at West Bank military checkpoints. And he instructed them to
reduce the waiting time in queues.
Reopening of industrial zone crossing points out of Gaza
Israel has reopened crossing points into industrial zones bordering
Gaza, including the Erez and Rafah terminals. These had repeatedly
been shut by Israel in the last year due to Palestinian attacks
on them (see Briefing 126 – Sabotaging Recovery: attacks
on Palestinian industrial zones and crossing points). Israel
has also increased the number of work permits granted to Palestinian
labourers to enable them to work inside Israel.
Return of Palestinians expelled from Bethlehem in 2002
for forcing their involvement in the siege of the Church of
On 17 February Israel authorised the return to Bethlehem of
20 Palestinians who had been expelled to the Gaza Strip and
to Europe for taking part in the siege at the Church of the
Nativity in April-May 2002. Over 100 Palestinian gunmen had
holed up in the Church for five weeks, surrounded by Israeli
forces. (The siege ended peacefully). Not included in this decision
were the ring-leaders of the siege, who remain exiled in Europe.
Inside Israel there are at least three criticisms of these
Israeli policies “on the ground”:-