JERUSALEM – Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Egypt on Sunday, along with other representatives from the Middle East and the United States, in an effort to reduce tensions and the potential for violent conflict during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this week.
The gathering in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh came amid fears that this Ramadan could be a particularly violent time, after 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, according to Palestinian officials, most in gun battles during arrest raids carried out by Israeli forces, and some 14 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians.
Following up on a similar meeting held in Jordan last month, the first of its kind in years, the meeting in Egypt was expected to focus mainly on security issues and possibly include discussion of economic issues.
The broader conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was not on the table in Sharm el Sheikh. Peace talks have been stalled for nearly a decade, and Israel’s right-wing government includes far-right parties that reject any such talks and aim to annex the entire occupied West Bank.
The Sharm el Sheikh gathering, like the one before it in Aqaba, Jordan, was called with the more modest goal of promoting calm and stability after a bloody start to the year, but there were few signs of calm ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan. . , a volatile period in which Israeli-Palestinian tensions have sometimes escalated into broader conflagrations.
While the conference was taking place in Egypt, a Palestinian gunman wounded 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 urged retaliation. “Delete Huwara. Now!” wrote Elisha Yered, adviser to a far-right lawmaker in the ruling coalition. “As long as we don’t address this, we will continue to be murdered in the streets.”
A new wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence
A recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank has stoked fears that tensions could escalate further.
The shooting last month sparked a wave of arson attacks by settlers on Palestinian homes in Huwara, and there were expectations of similar reprisals in the coming days, even before the start of Ramadan.
There is particular concern this year about the potential for conflict in the Aqsa Mosque complex in Jerusalem, one of Islam’s holiest sites. It sits on what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, where two ancient temples stood. The location has been the focal point of repeated clashes in recent years.
During Ramadan, which begins at sunset on Wednesday, thousands of Muslims gather every night to pray at the Aqsa Mosque. This year, the Jewish holiday of Passover, which also draws people to the bush, falls during Ramadan, starting on April 5.
Jews have increasingly climbed the hill in recent years and have begun to pray in the courtyard, despite decades of understanding that non-Muslims can visit the holy grounds but not pray there.
In an apparent sign of low expectations from the Sharm el Sheikh meeting, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not explicitly refer to Sunday in his remarks broadcast at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting.
Instead, he spoke about the “fight against terrorism,” saying: “Our forces are active 24 hours a day to settle scores with terrorists and thwart terrorist infrastructure. Dozens of terrorists have been eliminated in the last month; many others have been arrested.”
Violence spiked last month even as the Aqaba meeting was underway. A Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and that night the settlers responded by burning and vandalizing dozens of buildings and cars in several Palestinian villages, killing one Palestinian.
Last week, an Israeli man was seriously injured when a roadside bomb detonated in northern Israel. Israeli security forces said they had shot dead a man they accused of planting the bomb and who had likely infiltrated the country from southern Lebanon, in one of the most unusual security incidents on that border in years. .
The Palestinian delegation in Sharm el Sheikh came under internal pressure not to attend Sunday’s meeting after Israeli undercover forces shot dead two armed Palestinian militants who were their ostensible targets on Thursday in the Jenin shopping mall in the northern West Bank, and then kill another. an armed Palestinian and a bystander being chased by an angry mob.
Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official, saying the Palestinian delegation was attending the meeting to “defend the rights of our Palestinian people to freedom and independence and demand an end to this ongoing Israeli aggression against us.”
Barbara Leaf, the Under Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, represented the United States at the meeting.
A Palestinian group in Gaza fired a rocket at Israel on Saturday night. Israel did not immediately retaliate against Gaza, but Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed militant group based there, accused Israel on Sunday of killing one of its leading members, Ali Al-Aswad, overnight in Damascus, Syria.
Hamas, the largest Islamic militant group in control of Gaza, issued a mourning statement for the engineer Aswad, saying his killing “carried the hallmarks 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 been taking to the streets weekly to oppose a government plan for judicial reform that critics say will undermine the democratic foundations of Israel. country. It also comes after the Palestinian Authority partially suspended its security coordination with the Israeli security establishment, a mechanism that has helped curb spasms of violence in the past.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since it captured it in 1967. Palestinians have long viewed it as part of a future independent state, a vision backed by the United States.
But Israel has tightened its control over the territory, including expanding Jewish settlements there, fueling Palestinian anger. Most countries consider settlements to be 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 authorize new settlements for six months, according to US and Jordanian officials.
But the Israeli government, which was sworn in late last year, has vowed to give retroactive authorization to dozens of settlements that were built without government permission, some decades ago.
Israel also made it clear that it would go ahead with the construction of nearly 10,000 new settlement homes that were approved days before the Aqaba meeting.
Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.