Middle East Monitor / March 17, 2023
The English saying goes, “once bitten, twice shy”. A more damning Arabic saying roughly translates to “the mind of someone trying something (that has failed again) is surely ruined”. Both apply to the Palestinian Authority (PA) which has decided to join the Aqaba follow-up security meeting in Sharm al-Sheikh due to be held on Sunday. The meeting again brings together the PA, Israel, the US, Jordan and Egypt.
It is important to state that the purpose of the Aqaba and Sharm meetings is purely security related, with no political solution or return to negotiations on the agenda. To be more precise, it is about how the PA can improve its security performance, not for the Palestinians, but for Israel and its illegal settlers.
The start of the year has seen 100 Palestinians killed because of Israeli military operations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. They include women, children and the elderly. There have also been Israeli deaths in attacks carried out by what even Israel acknowledges are ‘lone’ Palestinians, not linked to factions.
The PA announced that it was ending security cooperation with Israel following the massacre in Jenin that was carried out by the Israel Defence Force (IDF), in which nine Palestinians were assassinated by occupation forces. Palestinian Authority representative Nabil Abu Rudeineh said that in the wake of the Israeli operation “security coordination with the occupation government no longer exists as of now.”
The announcement drew immediate rejection by Israel’s staunchest ally, the USA. “We don’t think this is the right step to take at this moment,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf told reporters in a phone briefing, while failing to condemn the massacre of Palestinians. She went further by stating: “Far from stepping back on security coordination, we believe it’s quite important that the parties retain, and if anything, deepen security coordination.” A truly bizarre notion in which the US is calling on occupied people to deepen security cooperation with their occupier.
Palestinians met the PA announcement with the usual suspicion that the security cooperation may be scaled back but that it would not be cancelled.
It seems that to ensure security cooperation was stepped up, the US setup the Aqaba meeting, to the disbelief of Palestinians and their supporters. Why are Palestinian officials sitting down and shaking hands with the occupying state?
At the end of the meeting, the US State Department issued a communique made up of eight points, which essentially referenced a commitment by the ‘two sides’ to “de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence.” As a major achievement of the meeting.
The communique referred to “the importance of upholding unchanged the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem in word and practice.”
The third key outcome was that the two sides “confirmed their joint readiness and commitment to immediately work to end unilateral measures for a period of 3-6 months. This includes an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new illegal settlement units for 4 months and to stop authorization of any outposts for 6 months.”
As the Aqaba meeting was still in progress, Israeli leaders dismissed the agreed points. Israeli Security Minister and Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir gave the clearest rejection saying “what was in Jordan (if it was), will stay in Jordan”. While Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich claimed he had no knowledge of the context of the Aqaba discussions. He asserted: “There will not be a freeze on construction and development in the settlement, not even for one day.”
Anyone who thought that veteran Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be mindful of not upsetting the Americans and would be more restrained got his answer as Netanyahu declared that there would not be any construction freeze over the Green Line. “Construction and regulation in Judea and Samaria [the occupied West Bank] will continue according to the original planning and construction schedule, without any changes. There is and will not be any freeze.”
The remarks of three members of the extremist right-wing Israeli government did not go well with the Americans. A senior security official said that the ministers’ remarks had “embarrassed” Washington.
The Aqaba communique was stillborn. Israel continued to attack Palestinian cities and to assassinate Palestinians, in many cases blocking medical teams’ access to the injured. In addition, settler violence continued invariably carried out under the protection of the occupation forces.
The rising tensions in the OPT moved from Jenin and Nablus, which had borne the brunt of the escalating Israeli violence to the town of Huwara, near Nablus. A Palestinian gunman attacked and killed two Jewish settlers. This was followed by what many described as a pogrom in which an estimated 300 illegal settlers and the IDF attacked Palestinians in the occupied town. They terrorized families and burnt homes, businesses and vehicles.
A palpable sense of terror could be felt as images from Huwara were shared on social media. The devastation and trauma felt in the town was unlike anything else seen before. It fell to Israeli Minister Smotrich not to try and calm the situation but to call for the Palestinian village to be “erased“. The call was condemned by many western countries. The US State Department said that the call “amounted to incitement to violence and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must publicly disavow it.”
Netanyahu did not respond to the call. While Smotrich, rather than apologize to Palestinians for his remark, eventually issued an apology to the IDF, claiming he did not realize that the remarks, which sparked a severe protest by dozens of Israeli Air Force pilots, would be interpreted as a “military order”.
Far from the situation on the ground calming, a lone Palestinian gunman attacked and injured three Israelis in Tel Aviv and Israeli forces attacked Palestinians in Jinan killing four Palestinians including a child, Mohammed Omar Mohammed Awadin.
Having tried to arrive at deals and understandings and even peace talks with Israel since Oslo, which took place 30 years ago, and considering the current extremist Israeli government and the almost daily raids and killings in the OPT, one wonders why Hussein El-Sheikh, general secretary of the PLO, and Majed Faraj, head of Palestinian Security, will go to Sharm al-Sheikh on Sunday? It is a meeting at which the only item on the table will be how the PA, through its security forces and security cooperation with the occupier, will ensure calm for Israelis during the forthcoming Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The past two Ramadans saw an escalation of Israeli violence, particularly in Jerusalem.
Clearly, this is not a meeting on the road to an end to the occupation. Do Al-Sheikh and Faraj not learn from their bitter experience of talking to their occupier and oppressor? Palestinians cannot imagine shaking hands with their killers, but the two will. What do they expect to achieve?
They would be more in tune with their people if they boycotted the Sharm meeting, worked on raising popular resistance to the occupation and providing protection to the Palestinians against settler violence.
Kamel Hawwash is a British Palestinian engineering academic based at the University of Birmingham; he is Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), and a founding member of the British Palestinian Policy Council (BPPC)