Israeli and Palestinian officials express ‘readiness’ to work to stop violence

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  February 26, 2023

Jordan hosts first such high-level talks in years aimed at defusing tensions in region before Ramadan.

Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs have met in Jordan for the first such high-level talks in years aimed at defusing tensions in the volatile region ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, which it is feared could act as the catalyst for a wider escalation.

In a joint statement released at the close of the summit in the port city of Aqaba on Sunday, which was also attended by US, Jordanian and Egyptian officials, Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) expressed “readiness and commitment to work immediately” to prevent further violence.

It is expected concrete steps will be taken towards restoring security cooperation in the occupied West Bank, which the PA suspended last month in the aftermath of the deadliest Israeli army raid on the area in decades.

Whether the measures will calm the situation in the northern West Bank, where fighting between the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) and Palestinian militias has been raging for almost a year, remains to be seen: the massive Israeli offensive was launched in part because the PA has steadily lost control in the cities of Jenin and Nablus.

The statement also said both sides would revive efforts towards reaching a “just and lasting peace” deal in the decades-old conflict, and that Israel had committed to halting Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank for the next four months. However, plans to build more than 7,000 new housing units are expected to go ahead after the freeze, as well the retroactive legalization of nine outposts built by Jewish settlers without the permission of the Israeli government.

Those numbers mean that more Israeli building in the West Bank – which negates the possibility of a two-state solution – has already been approved so far in 2023 than in 2022 and 2021 combined.

Several elements of Israel’s new far-right government are determined to totally annex the West Bank and relax the rules of engagement for Israel’s police and soldiers. There was immediate condemnation of Sunday’s meeting from the finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who also has a Defence ministry portfolio, who said that “‘calm’ will only be achieved when the IDF hit the terror cities and its perpetrators with tanks and helicopters”.

Several Palestinian groups – both political and military – also urged the PA to withdraw from the talks.

At least 62 Palestinians, including armed fighters and civilians, have been killed so far this year, as well as 12 Israelis and a Ukrainian national, according to PA and Israeli foreign ministry tallies. The escalating violence so far in 2023 builds on that of 2022, which was the bloodiest year on record in Israel and West Bank since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in the 2000s.

Other recent attempts at de-escalation appear to have come to naught: the Israeli government reportedly agreed to a US-brokered plan to reduce IDF incursions in Palestinian cities last week, only to conduct a rare daytime raid on Nablus’ busy souq three days later, killing 12 and wounding more than 100 people.

Also on Sunday, two Jewish Israelis were shot dead while driving through the West Bank town of Huwara, near Nablus, which is often a flashpoint for confrontations between Palestinians and Jewish settlers living nearby. Retaliatory attacks were reported across the area overnight, with several Palestinian houses and cars set alight.

In response, Israel’s government said it would expedite legislation reinstating the death penalty for acts of terrorism committed against Israeli nationals.

Preliminary approval could be given by the Knesset as early as Wednesday. The move follows a step-up in collective punitive measures against Palestinians, such as making it easier to demolish the homes of attackers and strip family members of residency or citizenship, which rights groups have warned are illegal under international law and will add fuel to the fire.

The parties present in Aqaba agreed to hold another meeting in the Egyptian city of Sharm al-Sheikh before Ramadan begins in late March to assess progress and discuss the establishment of a joint civilian committee “that will work to promote confidence-building economic measures” for the PA.

Tensions in the divided city of Jerusalem and the Palestinian territories often spiral during the Muslim month of fasting, which this year coincides with the Jewish holiday of Passover.

Clashes at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, during Ramadan in May 2021 contributed to the outbreak of another round of war with Hamas in Gaza.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian