Reports yesterday said Israel’s security establishment has agreed for the Palestinian Authority to purchase helicopters to transport its senior officials. The plan is for two helicopters to be acquired by the PA and stationed in Jordan for use by senior Palestinian officials when needed. The PA would be required to ask Israel for authorization to travel through Israeli airspace, including over the West Bank. The purchase is to be financed by unnamed Gulf countries.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas already uses a helicopter provided by Jordan, mostly to fly to Amman. Abbas has not traveled to Gaza for several years now.
It is the first time since 2001 that Israel has agreed for the PA to acquire helicopters. After the 1993 Oslo Accords, Israel authorized Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to own three Soviet-made Mil Mi-8 helicopters. In 2001, about a year after the outbreak of the second intifada, Israeli forces hit the Gaza helipad, destroying two of the Palestinian aircraft that were parked there, following intelligence assessments that they were used to shuttle weapons and wanted Palestinians between the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan.
The current plan seeks to strengthen Abbas' status, as European and American officials have pressured Israel to do over the past few months. Apart from the helicopters, the PA had asked Israel to release the bodies of Fatah members it is holding as well as Fatah activists in jail not for killing Israelis, but for other offenses. Israel is demanding that the PA do more about the outbreak of violence in the West Bank, particularly terror cells in Nablus and in Jenin. No agreement has been reached so far on these issues.
Israel also recently adopted other confidence-building measures vis-à-vis the Palestinians, publishing new guidelines for foreign nationals' entry into the West Bank. Israel has dropped a clause much criticized by the American and European governments that had required visitors to notify Israel if they enter into a relationship (engagement, marriage or even cohabitation) with a West Bank Palestinian.
Another clause dropped in the new guidelines was limits on foreign teachers and students attending Palestinian universities of 150 foreign professors and 100 students per year. Israel will no longer restrict the number of teachers and students entering the West Bank via exchange programs or as volunteers.
Progress has been uneven. On his visit to Israel and the West Bank last July, US President Joe Biden announced a package of US actions to benefit the Palestinians, some of them dependent on Israeli cooperation. Three months later, most of these moves have yet to materialize.
The two most significant measures are the relaunching of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Economic Committee and expanding the operation of the Allenby crossing between the West Bank and Jordan to 24 hours a day.
On the joint committee, Prime Minister Yair Lapid will apparently not take action until after the Nov. 1 elections. Even then, he might wait for the Americans to take further action.
As for the Allenby Bridge, Israel’s Transportation Ministry notified the Biden administration last month that it didn’t have enough staff to begin full-time operation by Sept. 30 as planned. Instead, it proposed to launch a pilot program on Oct. 24, after the end of the Jewish holiday period.