JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel said Tuesday it would increase the number of work permits issued to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and allow thousands more Palestinians to gain legal status ahead of President Joe Biden's visit to the region later this week.
Israel portrays such moves as confidence-building measures aimed at reducing tensions. Critics say they merely entrench its 55-year military rule over millions of Palestinians in the absence of any peace process. The last serious peace talks broke down more than a decade ago.
The latest measures were approved by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank last week to discuss coordination ahead of Biden's visit. Abbas' Palestinian Authority has limited rule over parts of the West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security matters.
Israel will allow an additional 5,500 Palestinians to be added to the Palestinian population registry - which it effectively controls - so they can get ID cards. Rights groups say tens of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza lack such status, forcing them to live under severe movement restrictions.
Israel said it would grant another 1,500 permits for Palestinian laborers in Gaza to work inside Israel, bringing the total number to 15,500 - the highest since the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power in Gaza from Abbas' forces 15 years ago. Israel and Egypt have imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza since then,
Israel says the blockade is needed to keep Hamas - which is opposed to its very existence - from arming itself. The Palestinians and rights groups view the blockade as a form of collective punishment of Gaza's 2 million Palestinian residents.
Israel has also approved six zoning plans for the West Bank. Israeli authorities heavily restrict Palestinian construction in the 60% of the West Bank that is under full Israeli control and routinely demolish homes and other structures built without hard-to-get Israeli permits. Authorities also said they would open a new vehicular crossing in the northern West Bank.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war and the Palestinians want it to form the main part of their future state.
The Biden administration says it supports an eventual two-state solution. But it has largely stood by as Israel expands its West Bank settlements, where nearly 500,000 Jewish settlers with special legal status live alongside some 3 million Palestinians.