Egypt, Jordan, and the US brought Palestinian and Israeli security officials together in Aqaba at the southern tip of Jordan on 26 February in the hope of ending the spiralling violence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
According to the Palestinian Ministry of Health, 64 Palestinian civilians have been killed since the beginning of this year by Israeli occupation forces or settlers, putting 2023 on track to becoming the bloodiest year for Palestinians since the second Intifada that broke out after former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon’s provocative intrusion into the Al-Aqsa Mosque sanctuary in 2000.
Israeli military operations in the West Bank have been focused on Jenin and Nablus. In the latter, 11 Palestinians were killed, including three elderly people and a child, during a security raid on 22 February.
Thirteen Israelis have been killed since the beginning of the year in separate attacks carried out by Palestinians. The most recent occurred on 26 February, the same day as the security meeting in Aqaba. Two Israelis were killed when gunmen opened fire on their car at the Hawwara checkpoint outside of Nablus.
The Aqaba meeting, which was attended exclusively by high-ranking security officials, had two main objectives. One was to restore calm ahead of the holy month of Ramadan, which usually occasions spikes in tensions in the West Bank, Gaza and Occupied Jerusalem. The other had a non-security dimension, which was to prepare a climate conducive to diplomatic efforts to foster a resumption of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that have been suspended since April 2014.
Following the Aqaba meeting, the participants released a joint communique in which they reaffirmed the need to de-escalate the situation and prevent further violence and to recognise the importance of upholding the historic status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem inclusive of the Hashemite custodianship of them.
The statement also said that Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) were committed to immediately working to end unilateral measures for a period of three to six months. This included an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop the authorisation of any new outposts for six months.
The parties agreed to meet again in Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt in March and to pursue confidence-building measures and strengthen mutual trust in order to address outstanding issues through direct dialogue.
However, within hours of the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that “the building and authorisation [of settlements in the West Bank] will continue according to the original planning and building schedule, with no change. There is not and will not be any freeze.”
Israeli Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich echoed Netanyahu’s denial. He is responsible for issuing the licenses for constructing settlement units in the West Bank in accordance with the division of responsibility among the partners in the current Israeli coalition government.
Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, another extremist in the current Netanyahu government, dismissed the importance of the security meeting, saying that what happened in Jordan would stay in Jordan.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Israeli settlers in the West Bank went on the rampage in Hawwara, Beit Furik, Za’tara and Burin in Nablus, setting fire to Palestinian homes, shops, and cars in these villages. Two Palestinians were shot dead during the attacks and dozens were injured.
A statement from the Office of the Palestinian President released on Sunday evening held the government of Israel responsible for the escalation in the violence and for destroying efforts to restore calm in the West Bank.
The Israeli official statements were vehemently criticised in Israeli opposition circles. These responses to the efforts in Aqaba to promote de-escalation have driven home in Israel and elsewhere the fact that the prospects for restoring calm are very slim under the current far-right government in power in Israel.
“The current government under Benjamin Netanyahu will never agree to engage in a serious political process with the Palestinians,” Palestinian political analyst Talal Awkal told Al-Ahram Weekly. “If it did, it would unravel immediately.”
Referring to Smotrich’s and Gvir’s determination to legitimise the Israeli West Bank settlements and outposts, Awkal said that “the ministers in the Netanyahu government are craving to annex portions of the West Bank and they are ideologically committed to it. So, there is no space for a diplomatic process.”
He added that if the current Israeli government takes any steps towards a resumption of the peace process it would probably so destabilise Netanyahu’s coalition as to cause its immediate collapse.
Nazir Majli, another Palestinian political analyst, agreed. “The Israeli right has been working to undermine Palestinian government institutions and stir up anarchy with the purpose of reverting to the pre-Oslo situation and ending any hope for the establishment of a state for the Palestinian people.”
“The chances for a return to negotiations are non-existent,” he said in an interview with the Weekly. “Washington has no desire to exert any real pressure on Tel Aviv on the Palestinians while it wants to embrace Netanyahu.”
The US persuaded the PA to refrain from pushing for a vote on a proposed UN Security Council Resolution to demand an immediate halt to Israeli settlement activities and condemn Israel’s attempts to annex settlements and outposts in the West Bank. In exchange, Washington vowed to put pressure on Israel to cease unilateral measures in the West Bank.
But, as Majli pointed out, “the US is preoccupied by international events, especially the war in Ukraine and the competition with China, which reduces the efficacy of its actions on the Palestinian question.”
Internal Palestinian politics further dampen prospects for a restoration of calm and the resumption of talks with Israel. Any steps the PA might take to negotiate with Israel at this juncture would lack significant support among the Palestinian factions influential in Gaza and the West Bank.
Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), the militant factions in Gaza, reject steps to de-escalate with Israel and are stepping up efforts to create armed groups in the West Bank.
Both Hamas and the PIJ have intensified their military presence in Nablus and Jenin, and Hamas has recently revealed its military presence in Jericho. The Israeli occupation takes advantage of these armed groups to wage nearly daily raids across the West Bank on the pretext of preempting possible attacks against Israelis.
In retaliation for the multiple deaths that occur in such raids, Hamas and the PIJ then fire missile barrages at Israeli settlements near Gaza, as occurred most recently on 23 February when six missiles were fired. Israel then generally responds by bombing Hamas and PIJ targets in Gaza.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly