© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: A view shows the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo
(In the 22nd paragraph of the February 26 story, corrects the date of February 23 from February 22 and the number of militants and civilians)
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) – Israeli and Palestinian officials pledged to defuse rising violence after meeting on Sunday, issuing a joint statement in which Israel said it would end talks on new settlement units in the occupied West Bank for four months.
Attended by senior US, Jordanian and Egyptian officials in addition to Israeli and Palestinian delegations, the meeting in Aqaba, Jordan, was the first of its kind in years.
The Israeli and Palestinian sides said in their statement that they would work closely together to prevent “further violence” and “reaffirmed the need to commit to de-escalation on the ground.” They affirmed their attachment to previous agreements.
Jordan, along with its allies Egypt and the United States, said the agreements were “a major step towards restoring and deepening relations between the two parties”.
But underscoring the challenges, the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, called the meeting “worthless” and condemned the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for its participation.
The meeting came as anxiety mounts over an escalation in violence ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which begins in late March.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority “confirmed their joint willingness and commitment to work immediately to end the unilateral measures for a period of 3 to 6 months,” the statement said.
“This includes an Israeli commitment to stop discussing any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorizing any outposts for six months.”
This could cause problems in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, one of the most right-wing in Israel’s history.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also has responsibilities over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, was quick to say he would not honor such an agreement.
“I have no idea what they talked about or didn’t talk about in Jordan,” Smotrich wrote on Twitter. “But one thing I do know: there will be no freeze on construction and development in the settlements, not even for a day (it’s under my authority).”
The Palestinians aim to establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital – territories captured by Israel in a 1967 war.
But peace talks have stalled since 2014 and Palestinians say Jewish settlement expansion has undermined chances for a viable state.
On February 12, Israel granted retroactive clearance to nine Jewish settler outposts in the West Bank and announced the massive construction of new homes in established settlements.
A senior Israeli official said there would be no change from the previous decision on allowing the outposts and 9,500 housing units. Netanyahu appeared to play down any commitment, saying Israel would continue building settlements according to previous plans, and saying there “will be no freeze”.
The UN Security Council issued an official statement on February 20 denouncing Israel’s plan to expand settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, the first action the United States has authorized the body to take against its ally Israel in six years.
US President Joe Biden thanked King Abdullah of Jordan for “convening this historic gathering”, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
“We recognize that this meeting was a starting point and that there is much work to be done over the coming weeks and months to build a stable and prosperous future for Israelis and Palestinians. will be essential,” he said.
The participants will meet in March in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. They agreed to “maintain positive momentum and extend this agreement towards a broader political process leading to a just and lasting peace,” their statement said.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the meeting “won’t change anything.” “He will not succeed in preventing our people from defending themselves and facing the crimes committed by the occupation government,” he told Reuters.
In the latest violence, a Palestinian gunman killed two Jewish settlers in their car in the West Bank on Sunday, Israeli officials said. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
Hamas said it was “a natural response to crimes committed by the occupation, the latest of which was the Nablus massacre”, where 11 Palestinians were killed – seven gunmen and four civilians – during of an Israeli raid on February 22.
In previous years, clashes erupted between Israeli police and Palestinians around Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa Mosque at the height of the fasting month of Ramadan, which coincided with Passover and Christian Easter.
A Jordanian official warned of “a very difficult dynamic on the ground with the escalation that occurs before Ramadan and Passover”.
Jerusalem is holy to all three religions. The Hashemite Royal Family of Jordan is the guardian of the Muslim and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem.
Several Palestinian factions ranging from armed groups within mainstream Fatah to Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad have urged the Palestinian Authority to withdraw from the meeting, calling it a US-led plot against Palestinian aspirations.