Following summits at Aqaba and Sharm al-Sheikh, Palestinians are fighting on two fronts

Mariam Barghouti

Mondoweiss  /  March 20, 2023

Recent U.S.-led summits in Jordan and Egypt have formalized the campaign to quash Palestinian resistance. Now, in addition to Israel’s ongoing offensive, Palestinians must also face the PA, as it hunts the resistance from within. 

On Sunday, March 19, Palestinian Authority (PA), Israeli, American, and Jordanian representatives met in Egypt’s city of Sharm al-Sheikh. The March meeting was preceded by an earlier summit held in Aqaba, Jordan on February 26, which was immediately derailed a few hours later by a Palestinian shooting in Huwwara and a subsequent settler rampage that burned over 70 houses in the Palestinian town. 

The period since then has been punctuated by a string of Israeli assassination missions and army raids, as well as a number of Palestinian resistance operations. In the wake of the ongoing Israeli onslaught, Israeli and PA representatives gathered once again this past weekend at Sharm al-Sheikh to put a stop to the rising tide of Palestinian revolt.

While details of the Sharm al-Sheikh meeting have been sparse, another resistance shooting took place in Huwwara, injuring two Jewish settlers, as the conference took place. The shooting solidified the Palestinian town as the graveyard of the recent diplomatic efforts to calm the rising tensions.

“We bless this heroic operation which comes as a natural response to the crimes being committed against our Palestinian people by the Zionist occupation,” a statement signed by “Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade – Occupied Palestine” said shortly after the operation on the evening of March 19.

Lack of transparency in Aqaba

The Aqaba summit in late February resulted in the issuing of an “Arab joint communique” signed on by Jordanian, Egyptian, Israeli, Palestinian, and American senior officials to halt the “unilateral measures,” by either Israel or the PA, that would lead to the further unraveling of the status quo in occupied Palestine.

The meeting of 13 participants included Israeli Ministers and officials from Israel’s security agencies and the civil administration, while the Palestinian delegation consisted of Hussein al-Sheikh, the Minister of Civil Affairs, Majed Faraj, the Head of General Intelligence Service, and Majdi Khaldi, Diplomatic Advisor to Abu Mazen. From the American side was Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbra Leaf, and Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs, Hady Amr. 

The contents of the meeting were not transparently disclosed to the public, but its conclusions were made available to the media: the communique aimed to renew channels of communication vis-a-vis the two-state solution. A short document released after the Sunday meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh also included agreements of returning jurisdiction of areas A to the Palestinian Authority.

“The Aqaba meeting contained important obligations which, if implemented, will lead to a decrease in escalations and progress towards a more comprehensive political engagement,” the Jordanian Foreign Minister, Ayman al-Safadi, said in a statement following the February meeting. 

According to the US State Department, the communique covered the ongoing violence, Jerusalem, and settlements. The Palestinian and Israeli counterparts allegedly agreed to end the aforementioned “unilateral measures” for a period of between 3-6 months, while Israelis reportedly agreed to stop discussion of new settlement units for four months, and illegal outposts for six months.

The Palestinian delegation was tasked “with important issues related to the regular incursions on Al-Aqsa, and which form a provocation for Muslims as we are entering the month of Ramadan,” the spokesperson for the Palestinian Security Forces (PSF), Talal Dweikat, told Mondoweiss. 

Designated by the Palestinian Authority’s acting president, Mahmoud Abbas, the delegation reportedly put forth demands regarding settlement expansion and the continued Israeli military incursions into Palestinian towns and cities. 

The meeting ended, and the American State Department reported a positive outcome towards de-escalation. Even then, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi affirmed that the reality on the ground will ultimately dictate the Summit’s outcome. 

Safadi’s statement proved more prescient than he may have anticipated. A mere hours after the summit, Abdelfattah Kharrousha of Balata refugee camp shot dead two settlers, one of whom was in the army, in the town of Huwwara. Kharrousha’s operation was in retribution for an Israeli army invasion of Nablus that had claimed the lives of 11 Palestinians and injured over 100 others days earlier. 

Within a few hours of the operation, gangs of settlers rampaged through Huwwara and carried out a pogrom, which was even described as such by a top Israeli general. The settlers burned homes, cars, and killed one Palestinian man in the night of terror, costing an estimated 5 million dollars in damage.

“They use excuses that something happened and that’s why they attack,” Foad Khuffash, 43, a former political prisoner, a friend of Kharrousha, and restaurant owner in Huwwara, explained to Mondoweiss the day after the rampage“But these are common and not linked to a single incident. That’s just an excuse.”

Khuffash pointed at the shattered glass of his restaurant. “The attempt is to impose a new reality on the ground,” he said.

The reality on the ground, as it were, was a clear repudiation of the Aqaba meeting. 

Before news broke of the events in Huwwara, Israeli officials were already negating the agreements reached in Aqaba about halting settlements. “There won’t be a freeze on construction and development,” Israeli Finance Minister Belazel Smotrich said. “Not even for one day.”

A few days after the razing of Huwwara, Smotrich called for the government to “wipe out” the Palestinian town. 

Israelis aligned with the new right-wing government headed by Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir also protested and rejected the summit. It seemed as if the meeting at Aqaba was dead in the water. What happened in Aqaba would not have an afterlife.

Shortly after the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, Smotrich spoke at an event in Paris where he claimed Palestinians are an invention of the last century, and that he and his family, in fact, are the “real Palestinians.”

Smotrich spoke behind a podium which had the map of “Greater Israel” — that is, including territories from Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon.

State-sponsored settler arson

“Our problem with Israelis is neither economic nor humanitarian,” the spokesperson for the Palestinian Security Forces, Talal Dweikat, told Mondoweiss. “It is political, and that has to do with rights which are enshrined by international law and the U.S.” 

Smotrich is not merely the Finance Minister in Israel. Last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordained Smotrich as the effective “governor” of the West Bank, granting him power over the operations of the Israeli army.

A few days after the summit, Benjamin Netanyahu had reportedly held an unofficial meeting legalizing the Evytar outpost located on Mount Sbeih belonging to the town of Beita, 13 km southeast of Nablus. Beita has been a site of ongoing protests, and has recently seen an increase in Jewish settler brutality. 

“They try to impose a certain reality on the people of the area by annexing and confiscating lands, burning them, and terrorizing the [Palestinians] here,” restaurant owner Khuffash said. “And it’s not just [Huwwara]. It’s a thing that happens across any area in close proximity with Israeli settlers.” 

The Huwwara pogrom wasn’t an isolated event, or even the first time such an attack took place this year. In January, Israeli settlers traveled through Palestinian villages and towns near Ramallah and committed more than 100 arson attacks, destroyed private property, and physically assaulted Palestinians, all while enjoying the protection of an Israeli army escort. That same month in the village of Aqraba, 18 km southeast of Nablus, settlers attacked Palestinians and medical personnel as they erected a new illegal outpost.

Many other arson attacks have been documented in many other areas across the West Bank. But while the Huwwara arson on the same day of the Aqaba summit wasn’t unique, the manner and timing of the attack illustrated the degree of Israeli colonial emboldenment and disregard for Palestinian life.  

“Burning everything in this way is unprecedented — it’s methodological and premeditated,” Khuffash recalled. “They had Molotov cocktails and gasoline, and it wasn’t just one arsonist.”

“They wanted to burn everything to the ground. They came in from every direction,” he said.

The PA’s role in Israeli counterinsurgency 

Armed resistance groups such as the Jenin Brigade and the Lions’ Den in Nablus called for collective protests against the meeting in Jordan. Opposition factions such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) joined in repudiating the conference in its entirety. 

Other political factions, such as the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), independent groups such as Al-Mubadara (the Palestinian National Initiative), political experts and analysts, and representatives from Fatah condemned participation in the conference, while emphasizing the role that the PA’s security forces have played in quelling resistance and hunting down resistance fighters. 

Amid a security vacuum and increased Palestinian confrontation with Israeli colonial forces, the Israeli government regards the PA as its final hope to curb the rising tide of resistance. Last September, then Israeli Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz, said that without the PA, the situation would only get “worse and more radical.”

According to sources with knowledge of the proceedings, part of the Aqaba meeting concerned designing a new security operations unit, consisting of at least 5,000 PA personnel to be trained in Jordan and deployed to Jenin and Nablus. 

This was approved by both Jordan and Egypt. The newly trained forces, along with new surveillance operations, will focus on Jenin and Nablus with the possibility of expanding to Hebron.

The move is meant to allow for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the area and to delegate its counterinsurgency operations against armed Palestinian resistance groups to the PA. 

Mondoweiss reached out to the governors of Nablus, Hebron/Al-Khalil, and Jenin, as well as spokespersons for the security forces, for comment. The representatives either denied the existence of a plan to deploy such a force in the near future, or refused to comment. 

“I feel disappointment at official Palestinian institutions,” Khuffash told Mondoweiss as a patrol of three Israeli military jeeps passed by his store. “They have obligations and roles in protecting us.”

Given its history the PA’s actions are also unsurprising. The reality, however, is Palestinian communities which are already under siege by the Israeli army and rampaging settlers are now facing a war on another front. It is a war from within and from without. 

“The PA’s project today is to stop any act of resistance, as part of what is called security coordination,” Khuffash told Mondoweiss

During a spike in the targeted assassination campaign in Nablus, the Palestinian Authority attacked youth and attempted to quell resistance by arresting two members of the Lions’ Den in September 2022. The PA also offered monetary incentives to armed fighters to forfeit confrontation and join the security forces. Some fighters accepted, but many more refused, including Nidal Khazem of the Jenin Brigade, who was assassinated a few days before the Sharm el-Sheikh summit. 

Upon being asked what the PA expects to come out of the summit, Dweikat told Mondoweiss: “If you ask me personally, we went to Aqaba with the conviction that Israelis won’t adhere to anything.” 

Sitting from his desk in one of the Security Forces’ buildings in Ramallah, he continued to explain the importance of joining the Summit, despite criticism from within Palestinian communities. 

“Imagine two months later and some disaster happens,” he said. “The Americans will quickly say ‘well we tried to negotiate, but the Palestinians don’t want to.’” 

The PA’s effort to curb resistance has taken place alongside Israel’s uninterrupted campaign of extrajudicial assassinations — only two weeks after Aqaba, the Israeli army invaded Jenin refugee camp and killed six Palestinians. One of them was Abdelfattah Khrrousha, suspected of having carried out the Huwwara shooting on the day of the Aqaba Summit. 

Khuffash, who knew Kharrousha and was imprisoned alongside him several times in the past, told Mondoweiss that they were imprisoned by “both the PA and the Israelis.”

“This means that anyone who takes on resistance is at risk of arrest [by the PA]” Khuffash said. “And this isn’t limited to Hamas. I’ve had many people from Fatah arrested alongside me before.”

“My first arrest by the PA was in 1996,” Khuffash continued“We were taken to Jericho, and we were arrested based on student activities,” he said. 

During Kharrousha’s funeral procession, the PA once more demonstrated its antagonism to resistance in the West Bank by attacking the mourners carrying his body.

Assaulting a martyr’s funeral

Allegedly affiliated with Hamas, the assault on Kharrousha’s funeral procession took place following chants supporting the resistance organization based in Gaza, specifically chants such as “we are all Mohammad Dayf” (the head of the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades in Gaza). 

The PA security forces fired teargas at the mourners and attacked them, arresting at least a dozen youth from the crowd. 

Eyewitnesses told Mondoweiss that security forces also threatened mourners and beat others who carried Kharrousha’s bodyThis led the body to be dropped, which was widely condemned by Palestinians and political factions, and was likened to the Israeli repression of the funeral of Shireen Abu Akleh that caused her coffin to be dropped.

“We want [the PA security forces] to protect us, not obstruct us,” Abu Bilal, a friend of the slain Kharrousha, told Mondoweiss from the wake held for him in Askar refugee camp, near Nablus. “They fired sound grenades, teargas, and even live ammunition as we carried the martyr on our shoulders,” he recalled.

The PA continued its intimidation and detention campaign of people who attended the procession several days following the funeral. 

On Sunday, March 12, the Public Prosecution in Nablus extended the detention of Samir Hobeisha and Yaman Dweikat, both detained under the pretext of participating in Kharrousha’s funeral. On Monday morning, March 13, photojournalist Wahhaj Bani-Mufleh was arrested and held for more than three days in PA detention centers in Nablus (while Bani-Mufleh was originally summoned for interrogation by the PA, he was only released on Wednesday afternoon).

Israeli news sites quickly reported that these latest arrests by the Palestinian Security Forces came as part of the agreements reached during the Aqaba Summit.

“The young men had to put the martyr on the ground,” Abu Bilal reflected somberly. “Imagine that. A martyr was dropped to the ground because of the teargas.”

Mariam Barghouti is the Senior Palestine Correspondent for Mondoweiss