Last week began with an Israeli military raid in Nablus that killed 11 Palestinians, including a child and three elderly men. This week began with the violent rampage of dozens of residents of illegal Israeli settlements who tore through the Huwara area, setting fire to Palestinian houses, shops and cars, leaving one dead and several injured.
The same day, Egyptian, Jordanian, and US security officials and two representatives from the Israeli government and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) met in the southern Jordanian city of Aqaba to try to restore calm. According to a joint communiqué, the parties agreed to a number of de-escalatory measures, including an Israeli commitment to freeze the construction of illegal settlement units for four months and to halt authorisation of new outposts for six months. The participants also agreed to “maintain the positive momentum” and meet again in Sharm El-Sheikh on 7 March to pursue further confidence building measures.
The following day, Monday, the violence escalated further following the killing of an Israeli settler near Jericho. Israeli occupation forces deployed a fourth battalion, cordoned off the Huwara district entirely, and sealed the Jericho area. Palestinian observers described the measures as a deliberate attempt to undermine the agreement struck in Aqaba.
“The Israelis have reneged on everything they agreed to in Aqaba and tensions have risen across the West Bank,” political analyst Shadi Zamaara told Al-Ahram Weekly by phone from Ramallah.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and senior officials in his government had been quick to dismiss the results of the Aqaba meeting. “What happened in Jordan will stay in Jordan,” said the ultra-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.
Zamaara believes Israeli officials are actively encouraging settler violence.
“The extremist Israeli government wants to kill Palestinian youth,” he says. “It is protecting the settlers as they burn down people’s homes. It ties the hands of the PA and holds it responsible at the same time.”
“The situation has spun beyond the control of politicians on both sides,” an Arab source in Israel told the Weekly. The source believes that even if Palestinian and Israeli officials wanted to contain the violence in the face of outside pressures from the US and Egypt, any momentum is now firmly in the hands of the street. Israeli settlers escalate and Palestinian youth counter-escalate. So volatile has the situation in the West Bank become that it is impossible to predict what will happen.
The Israeli government, itself, is in uproar even as Netanyahu attempts to keep it under control. Addressing the Knesset on Monday, he said: “[We] will not accept anarchy. We will not accept a reality where people… set homes on fire, burn cars, intentionally harm innocent people. This is exactly what our enemies want to see: a loss of control and a never-ending cycle of blood, fire, and smoke.” Netanyahu blamed his National Security Minister Gvir for encouraging the settlers to set fire to Palestinian homes.
Said Okasha, an expert on Israeli affairs at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, doubts that the discord in the government is strong enough to bring down the Netanyahu coalition given the Israeli opposition is more divided than the government, as Monday’s Knesset session showed. “Also,” he said, “history illustrates that Israelis tend to set their differences aside and unite whenever violence breaks out in the West Bank or war erupts in Gaza. The reverse is the case when the situation is calm, so the current situation benefits the Netanyahu government.”
Nor are time or the balances of power in favour of the Palestinians. Even if there is pressure to sustain the Aqaba course, the settlement freeze is of limited duration.
“It would be best to raise the bar,” Okasha argues, “rather than let events lead inexorably towards higher tensions and, ultimately, the killing of large numbers of Palestinians, sending de-escalation efforts back to square one.”
Mustafa Barghouti, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Initiative (PNI), holds a different opinion. In a statement to the press he said that “chasing after negotiations with Israel will do nothing to change the current situation”.
“It is better,” he argued, “to try to change the balances of power.”
The US State Department has called on Israeli authorities to rein in settler violence against Palestinian civilians and hold the perpetrators to account. The State Department stressed that its opposition to settlement activities remains unchanged, intimating that it will not look kindly on Israeli attempts to backtrack on the commitments it made in Aqaba.
Tor Wennesland, UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, holds the Israeli army responsible for deteriorating conditions in the West Bank. “There can be no justification for terrorism, nor for arson and acts of revenge against civilians,” he stressed. “All perpetrators of violence must be held accountable. Violence, provocations and incitement must stop immediately and be unequivocally condemned by all.”
On Monday evening, the UAE called for a closed UN Security Council session on Tuesday to discuss the situation in Palestine. A source in Cairo familiar with developments said that Egypt is communicating with all parties and will intensify its efforts to halt Israeli provocations, especially on the part of settlers in the West Bank. The source added, however, that “there is not much hope for the prospect of stopping the tit-for-tat violence given the extent to which the situation has spun out of control.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly