Deadly Nablus raid places US-organized regional security summit at risk

Ramallah threatening to withdraw, which could lead to Aqaba’s meeting’s cancellation as representatives from Jordan and Egypt won’t want to attend without PA

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

A Palestinian gestures to Israeli military vehicles during clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus, February 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian gestures to Israeli military vehicles during clashes in the West Bank city of Nablus, February 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

An Israeli-Palestinian regional security summit organized by the White House is facing possible cancellation following the military’s deadly raid in Nablus, a Palestinian source familiar with the matter said Thursday.

The meeting of senior officials from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the US, Jordan and Egypt is scheduled to take place in the Jordanian resort city of Aqaba on Sunday, the source said, confirming a report in the Axios news site.

However, the Israel Defense Forces incursion into Nablus Wednesday, which sparked gun battles that left 11 Palestinians dead, including several civilians, has sparked widespread anger in the Arab world, putting the confab at risk.

The PA, which issued a call to the Security Council to provide protections to the Palestinian population in the West Bank, is now also threatening to pull out of the summit, the Palestinian source said. The source added that Jordan and Egypt have indicated they would follow suit, which would place the entire meeting in jeopardy.

A US official declined to comment on the summit’s possible cancellation. Officials in Jordan and Egypt could not immediately be reached and there was no official reaction from Israel.

The summit is aimed at boosting Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation and solidifying understandings that had been reached earlier this week regarding the steps that the two sides would take in order to de-escalate tensions, the well-placed source said.

A nearly year-long Israeli anti-terror offensive in the West Bank has left over 200 Palestinians dead — the vast majority in clashes with Israeli troops but some under more questionable circumstances — including 60 killed since the start of the year, straining already frayed ties. The campaign was launched last year to stem a rash of deadly attacks on Israelis: 31 were killed in 2022, and this year alone, 11 have been killed in Palestinian terror attacks in East Jerusalem — 10 civilians and one Border Police officer.

Ramallah is supposed to send a delegation led by PA Civil Affairs Minister and PLO Secretary-General Hussein al-Sheikh along with PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s chief diplomatic adviser Majdi Khaldi, the source said. Israel will be represented by National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi. US National Security Council Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk and Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf are slated to represent the US President Joe Biden’s administration.

Al-Sheikh and Hanegbi have established a covert line of communication, with formal contacts between Jerusalem and Ramallah essentially frozen. Despite the hardline nature of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, Abbas dispatched al-Sheikh to create a backchannel with Jerusalem that would be used to maintain contact and prevent further deteriorations of ties. The backchannel has largely withstood the ongoing period of violence, and al-Sheikh and Hanegbi have held several in-person and virtual meetings, a Palestinian official said on Monday.

However, the Palestinian source said Wednesday’s Nablus raid placed further strain on that backchannel, but they speculated that Ramallah would ultimately agree to attend the Aqaba summit on Sunday.

The raid had targeted a squad belonging to the Lion’s Den armed group in Nablus.

In addition to the three targeted Lion’s Den members, several other Palestinian gunmen were also killed during an intense firefight that broke out. The death count also included three civilians aged 61, 66 and 72, according to the Palestinian health ministry. It was the highest number of Palestinian fatalities in an IDF operation in the West Bank since the UN began recording such data in 2005.

The raid sparked a range of international backlash, including from potential summit participants Jordan, Egypt and the US.

Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh and PA President Mahmoud Abbas in a photo postsed by al-Sheikh on May 12, 2020. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, Israel on Dec. 29, 2019. (Abir Sultan /Pool photo via AP)

The conference is aimed at formalizing the Israeli agreement to hold off on authorizing additional settlement expansion for several months along with a similarly-timed commitment to ease IDF raids in Palestinian cities and demolitions or evictions of Palestinians from their homes. The Palestinian source said Ramallah is furious each of those commitments was breached this week and is demanding that the US press Israel to adhere to the agreement.

It was because of US assurances regarding its ability to limit Israeli moves in the West Bank that the PA agreed to withdraw its support for a UN Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to settlement activity. The US agreed to back a more symbolic Presidential Statement condemning settlements. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken also told Abbas over the weekend that he would receive an invitation to meet with US President Joe Biden in the White House — an invitation that has yet to be extended to Netanyahu.

Abbas in turn also agreed to adopt a US-backed plan aimed at strengthening the PA’s security presence in the northern West Bank, where a number of terror groups have managed to gain a foothold amid a power vacuum left by the weakened PA. Israel says the PA’s failure to rein in terror groups has forced it to send its own forces into northern West Bank cities. Ramallah has argued that such IDF raids have only harmed its legitimacy and ability to crack down on armed groups.

The US security plan for the northern West Bank is slated to be further ironed out by the parties in Aqaba, the Palestinian source said.

The White House declined to comment on the conference but Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday that McGurk was currently in the Middle East “with an interagency delegation for a series of diplomatic engagements” and that his trip would include stops in Egypt, Jordan, Oman and the UAE.

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