Amid violence, Israeli and Palestinian officials meet to promote calm
JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Egypt on Sunday, along with other representatives from the Middle East and the United States, in a bid to reduce tensions and the potential for violent conflict during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. , which begins this week.
The meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh came amid fears that this Ramadan could be a particularly violent time, following the deadliest start to the year in more than two decades for Palestinians and Israelis. So far in 2023, more than 80 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, Palestinian officials say, most in armed clashes during arrest raids by Israeli forces, and around 14 Israelis have been killed in attacks by of the Palestinians.
Following a similar meeting held in Jordan last month – the first of its kind in years – the meeting in Egypt was expected to focus primarily on security issues and possibly include discussions on economic issues.
The broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not on the table in Sharm el Sheikh. Peace talks have stalled for nearly a decade, and Israel’s right-wing government includes far-right parties that reject such dialogue and aspire to annex the entire occupied West Bank.
The Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, like the one that preceded it in Aqaba, Jordan, was convened with the more modest aim of promoting calm and stability after a bloody start to the year, but there were few signs of calm before the fasting month of Ramadan. , a volatile period where Israeli-Palestinian tensions sometimes escalated into wider conflagrations.
While the conference was being held in Egypt, a Palestinian sniper injured two Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. The shooting occurred at the same roundabout in Huwara, a Palestinian town, where a Palestinian shot dead two other Israelis during the conference in Jordan last month.
Sunday’s attack sparked calls in Israel for the Israeli delegation to leave the conference early, and extremist settlers called for retaliation. “Erase Huwara. NOW!” writing Elisha Yered, adviser to a far-right ruling coalition lawmaker. “Until we address this, we will continue to be murdered in the streets.”
A new outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence
A recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank has raised fears of a further escalation in tensions.
Last month’s shooting sparked a wave of arson attacks by settlers on Palestinian homes in Huwara, and similar reprisals were expected in the coming days, even before the start of Ramadan.
There is particular concern this year about the potential for conflict in the compound of the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites. It sits atop what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, where two ancient temples once stood. The location has been the focal point of repeated clashes in recent years.
During Ramadan, which begins at sunset on Wednesday, Muslims gather in their thousands every evening to pray at the Aqsa Mosque. This year, the Jewish holiday of Passover, which also draws people to the mount, falls during Ramadan, starting April 5.
Jews have increasingly climbed the mountain in recent years and started praying in the courtyard, despite a decades-old understanding that non-Muslims can visit the holy compound but not pray there.
In an apparent sign of low expectations for the Sharm el-Sheikh meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no explicit reference to it Sunday in his remarks broadcast at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting.
Instead, he spoke of the “fight against terrorism”, saying: “Our forces are active around the clock in order to settle scores with terrorists and thwart the terrorist infrastructure. Dozens of terrorists were eliminated last month; many others were arrested.
Violence escalated last month even as the Aqaba meeting got under way. A Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and that night settlers responded by burning and vandalizing dozens of buildings and cars in several Palestinian villages, killing one Palestinian.
Last week, an Israeli was seriously injured when a homemade bomb exploded in northern Israel. Israeli security forces said they shot dead a man they accused of planting the bomb and who was believed to have infiltrated the country from southern Lebanon, in one of the incidents of most unusual security along this border in years.
The Palestinian delegation in Sharm el-Sheikh came under domestic pressure not to attend Sunday’s meeting after Israeli secret forces on Thursday shot and killed two armed Palestinian militants who were their apparent targets, in the commercial center of Jenin, in the northern West Bank and then killed another. Armed Palestinian and a passerby as they were chased by an angry mob.
Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official, said the Palestinian delegation was attending the meeting in order to “defend the rights of our Palestinian people to freedom and independence and to demand an end to this continued Israeli aggression against us”.
Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, represented the United States at the meeting.
A Palestinian group in Gaza fired a rocket towards Israel on Saturday evening. Israel did not immediately retaliate against Gaza, but the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed militant group based there, accused Israel on Sunday of assassinating one of its top operatives, Ali Al-Aswad, at night in Damascus, Syria.
Hamas, the largest Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, issued a statement mourning Mr Aswad, an engineer, saying his murder “bears the mark of the Israeli occupation”. Israeli officials declined to comment.
The surge in violence comes amid an internal crisis in Israel, where hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets every week to oppose a government plan to overhaul the judiciary that critics say will undermine the foundations democracy in the country. It also comes after the Palestinian Authority partially suspended its security coordination with Israel’s security establishment, a mechanism that has helped rein in spasms of past violence.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since its capture in 1967. Palestinians have long envisioned it as part of a future independent state, a view endorsed by the United States.
But Israel has tightened its grip on the territory, including developing Jewish settlements there, fueling Palestinian anger. Most countries view settlements as violations of international law.
At last month’s meeting in Jordan, Israel pledged not to discuss construction of new settlement housing for four months and not to allow new settlement outposts for six months, officials say Americans and Jordanians.
But the Israeli government, sworn in late last year, has promised to grant retroactive permission to dozens of settlements that were erected without government permission, some of them decades ago.
Israel also made it clear that it would continue construction of nearly 10,000 new settlement homes that were approved days before the Aqaba meeting.
Patrick Kingley contributed report.