Israelis, Palestinians pledge to curb violence at Jordan meeting
(This Feb. 26 story has been corrected to rectify the number of militants and civilians killed, and change date to Feb. 22 from Feb. 23 in paragraph 22)
By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) - Israeli and Palestinian officials pledged to de-escalate surging violence after meeting on Sunday, issuing a joint statement in which Israel said it would halt discussions about new settlement units in the occupied West Bank for four months.
Attended by senior U.S., Jordanian and Egyptian officials in addition to the 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 to prevent "further violence" and "reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground". They affirmed their commitment to previous agreements.
Jordan, along its allies Egypt and the United States, said the understandings were "major progress towards re-establishing and deepening relations between the two sides".
But underlining the challenges, Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, called the meeting "worthless", and condemned the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for taking part.
The meeting was held as anxiety mounts of an escalation in violence in the run-up to the holy Muslim month of Ramadan that begins in late March.
Israel and the Palestinian Authority "confirmed their joint readiness and commitment to immediately work to end unilateral measures for a period of 3-6 months", the statement said.
"This includes an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for six months."
That could cause trouble in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government, one of the most right wing in Israeli history.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also has responsibilities over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, quickly said he would not abide by any such agreement.
"I have no idea what they spoke about or not in Jordan," Smotrich wrote on Twitter. "But one thing I do know: there will not be a freeze on the building and development in settlements, not even for one day (it is 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 Israel captured in a 1967 war.
But peace talks have been stalled since 2014 and Palestinians say Jewish settlement expansion has undermined the chances of a viable state being established.
Israel on Feb. 12 granted retroactive authorisation to nine Jewish settler outposts in the West Bank and announced mass-construction of new homes within established settlements.
A senior Israeli official said there would be no change to the previous decision regarding authorization of those outposts and 9,500 housing units. Netanyahu seemed to downplay any commitment, saying Israel would continue settlement building along previous plans, and saying there "will not be any freeze".
The U.N. Security Council issued a formal statement on Feb. 20 denouncing Israel's plan to expand settlements on occupied Palestinian territory, the first action the United States has allowed the body to take against its ally Israel in six years.
U.S. President Joe Biden thanked Jordan's King Abdullah for "convening this historic gathering", U.S. 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 do over the coming weeks and months to build a stable and prosperous future for Israelis and Palestinians alike. Implementation will be critical," he said.
The participants will meet again in March in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. They agreed to "maintain positive momentum and expand this agreement towards wider political process leading to a just and lasting peace", their statement said.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said the meeting would "not change anything". "It will not succeed to prevent our people from defending themselves and confronting the crimes conducted by the government of the occupation", 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 conducted by the occupation, the last of which was the massacre in Nablus", where 11 Palestinians were killed - seven gunmen and four civilians - in an Israeli raid on Feb. 22.
In previous years, clashes have erupted between Israeli police and Palestinians around Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque at the height of the Ramadan fasting month that coincided with Judaism's Passover and Christian Easter.
A Jordanian official warned of "a very difficult dynamic on the ground with the escalation happening ahead of Ramadan and Passover".
Jerusalem is holy to all three faiths. Jordan’s Hashemite royal family is the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem.
Several Palestinian factions from armed groups within mainstream Fatah to Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad urged the PA to withdraw from the meeting, calling it a U.S.-led plot against Palestinian aspirations.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi Additional reporting from Nidal Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, and Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Tom Perry and Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Kim Coghill, Raissa Kasolowsky, Barbara Lewis and Alexander Smith)