Israel agrees to pause settlement plans for four months

Israel, PA renew vow to curb violence and halt unilateral moves at Egypt summit

Joint statement from follow-up regional meeting includes new recognition of Ramallah’s ‘legal right’ to security control over Area A, where IDF has been operating regularly

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

Palestinian protesters burn tires during a small protest called for by Hamas east of Gaza City by the border with Israel on March 19, 2023 against the regional summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)
Palestinian protesters burn tires during a small protest called for by Hamas east of Gaza City by the border with Israel on March 19, 2023 against the regional summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Israeli and Palestinian Authority delegations reconvened Sunday for a relatively rare, albeit low-stakes regional summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where they recommitted to de-escalating tensions days before the start of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan.

Sunday’s meeting with accompanying delegations from the United States, Jordan and Egypt was a follow-up to a similar gathering held in Aqaba, Jordan last month — the first such high-level confab of Israeli and Palestinian leaders in years. The sides have also agreed to meet for a third time next month.

The Sharm el-Sheikh summit, like the one in Aqaba, was marred by a terror attack that unfolded in the Palestinian town of Huwara. Sunday’s shooting on an Israeli-owned vehicle traveling through the northern West Bank town left a settler seriously injured.

Two Israeli brothers were killed in the attack last month. One Palestinian was killed during a settler rampage through Huwara hours later.

The attacks further highlighted the limited impact that such meetings are having in actually de-escalating tensions when the most hardline government in Israeli history is coupled with a historically weakened PA, alongside an ever-frustrated Palestinian public disillusioned over poor governance out of Ramallah and continued Israeli military rule.

Israeli and Palestinian leaders agreed to meet Sunday amid significant pressure from the US, Egypt and Jordan, which are aiming to lower tensions before the start of Ramadan, which in recent years has set the stage for further violence between the sides.

Since the start of the year alone, 14 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks. Over 80 Palestinians have been killed during that same period — most of them in clashes with Israeli troops, but others in more questionable circumstances.

Most of the recent violence has unfolded in the West Bank, but Ramadan poses the risk of the violence spreading further into East Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of Palestinians will gather daily at the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary, potentially adding a religious element to the tensions.

As they did after the Aqaba meeting, the sides issued a joint communiqué on Sunday in which they committed to the “prevention of further violence.”

The communiqué highlighted the “legal right” of the PA to exercise its security responsibility over Area A of the West Bank.

That territory with predominantly Palestinian contiguity makes up roughly 20 percent of the West Bank and was placed under PA security and civilian control in the 1995 Oslo II Agreement.

The IDF regularly enters Area A, however, and such incursions have increased significantly over the past year as Israel seeks to combat an ongoing terror wave stemming largely from the northern West Bank, where the PA has lost significant control.

RELATED: Why most right-wing gov’t in Israeli history attended a political summit with the PA

In the previous regional summit last month in Aqaba, Israel urged the PA to do more to regain control over the northern West Bank, telling participants that the more Ramallah acts against armed groups in the region, the less the IDF will have to enter Area A for raids that have become particularly lethal in recent months, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel at the time.

The PA has countered that the IDF raids further harm its legitimacy. While the clamping down on armed groups is in Ramallah’s interest as many of them oppose its rule, the PA has argued that cooperating with Israel on this front without parallel steps by Jerusalem to boost Palestinian sovereignty only further weakens it in the eyes of the Palestinian public, which has been highly critical of Sunday’s summit with the hardline government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Despite Israel’s assertion at the Aqaba summit that the PA security forces play a more active role in the West Bank, the issue was not included in the joint communiqué that was issued after that meeting. The decision to include it in the release after the Sharm el-Sheikh summit indicated a degree of progress on the issue.

Palestinian protesters burn tires during a small protest called for by Hamas east of Gaza City by the border with Israel on March 19, 2023, against the regional summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

“The two sides reaffirmed… their unwavering commitment to all previous agreements between them, in particular, the legal right of the Palestinian National Authority to carry out the security responsibilities in Area A of the West Bank, in accordance with existing agreements, and will work together toward realizing this objective,” the Sharm el-Sheikh communiqué stated, putting the onus on the PA to act in Area A while subtly acknowledging by omission that Israel doesn’t have the legal right to operate there.

The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement after the Sunday summit saying that the Israeli delegation “emphasized that in order to prevent an escalation during Ramadan and after [the parties] must act decisively against terrorism without compromise.”

The joint communiqué said Israel and the PA also agreed to establish a “mechanism to curb and counter violence, incitement and inflammatory statements and actions,” which will report back to fellow Sharm el-Sheikh participant countries the US, Egypt and Jordan when the sides reconvene for a third session in the Sinai resort town next month.

Israel and the PA also agreed to “establish a mechanism” to improve the economic conditions of the Palestinian people as well as the financial situation of the cash-strapped PA. That mechanism will also report back to representatives from the US, Egypt and Jordan at the April follow-up meeting.

The communiqué did not elaborate further on the nature of the “mechanisms,” but a senior Biden administration official briefing reporters later in the day said a series of measures aimed at improving the “financial viability” of the PA were discussed in addition to several measures aimed at boosting the PA’s security presence in the West Bank.

PA Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, who led the Palestinian delegation, told The Times of Israel earlier this month that Israel committed at the Aqaba summit to release millions of dollars in tax revenues that it has withheld from the PA.

The rest of the communiqué reiterated agreements reached at the Aqaba meeting, including a commitment by both sides to refrain from unilateral measures for three to six months. For Israel, this means no advancing settlement plans for four months and no advancing the legalization of West Bank outposts for six months.

A car seen with bullet holes at an intersection in the West Bank town of Huwara following a shooting attack on March 19, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

These commitments were quickly dismissed after last month’s summit by Netanyahu, who noted that the Defense Ministry body that authorizes settlement construction only convenes on a quarterly basis anyway. The panel also green-lit the largest-ever package of settlement homes — nearly 10,000 — days before the Aqaba gathering.

The unilateral measures from which the PA must refrain were not specified in either communiqué, but an Israeli official told The Times of Israel earlier this month that they include initiatives targeting Israel in international arenas such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Court.

Also reiterated in the communiqué was a commitment to upholding the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites, which included a new disclaimer in which Israel and the PA agree to “actively prevent any actions that would disrupt the sanctity of these sites, inter alia during the upcoming Holy Month of Ramadan, which coincides with Easter and Passover this year.”

The parties also reaffirmed the importance of such formatted meetings “and are looking forward to cooperating with a view to consolidating the basis for direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis” — a goal that various ministers in the Netanyahu government have largely dismissed.

The Israeli delegation on Sunday was led by National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar. The PA delegation was led by Al-Sheikh and Intelligence chief Majed Faraj. The Egyptian and Jordanian delegations were led by their respective Foreign Ministers Sameh Shoukry and Ayman Safadi. The US delegation was led by White House National Security Council Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk and Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf.

The sides did not issue a joint photo after either the Aqaba or Sharm el-Sheikh meetings.

Most Popular
read more: