Working with Mahmoud Abbas:
Changes to Israeli policy "on the ground"

Published: 24 February 2005
Briefing Number 134

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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 by Palestinians.

Background – the Palestinian election of January 2005

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 Israeli targets).

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 measures”.

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 towns

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 is curbed.

Israeli declaration of an end to military activity against Palestinians

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 Bank checkpoints

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 the Nativity

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.

Israeli concerns

Inside Israel there are at least three criticisms of these Israeli policies “on the ground”:-

  • Palestinian terrorism still continues: Virtually every day brings reports of Palestinian gunmen or bombers who are foiled while on the way to carry out attacks on Israeli targets. Weapons are still being smuggled in to the territories, and there are frequent shootings and stonings. It is argued that Israel is relaxing its security arrangements, while the so-called Palestinian “ceasefire” is an illusion

  • Playing into the hands of the terrorists?: The second concern is that Israel’s measures may not have the desired effect. They are intended to strengthen Abbas as he creates a pragmatic way forward. But it is argued that they embolden the terrorists by making it easier for them to operate, and more likely they will escape with relative impunity.

  • The Oslo mistakes are being repeated: the third concern is that the mistakes of the Oslo process are being repeated. Most Israelis consider that its concessions in the context of Oslo were exploited by the Palestinians rather than being reciprocated by them. It is argued that Israel should await substantial reciprocal steps before changing its security policies now.


Israel’s policy changes dispel the myth that Israel does not wish to strengthen moderate forces in Palestinian society. The question now is how effective Mahmoud Abbas will be in curbing terrorism “on the ground”, not as a short-term move, but as a long-term change in the direction of the Palestinian people.