Israel and Palestinians agree 'Aqaba declaration' to curb settlements

Jordan hosted security meeting in Aqaba between the two sides with US participation

A Palestinian confronts an Israeli military vehicle during a raid in the West Bank city of Nablus on February 22. AFP
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Israel agreed on Sunday to curb its settlement activity in occupied Palestinian territory after a meeting with Palestinian security officials in the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, partly acquiescing to a major Arab demand as violence rose in the West Bank.

Although neither side signalled that the violence would end soon, a statement after the meeting said they "reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence".

They agreed to continue meeting under this formula, maintain positive momentum and expand this agreement towards wider political process leading to a just and lasting peace
Joint statement at Aqaba

"The Government of Israel and the Palestinian National 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 4 months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for 6 months."

It said the United States, which was represented by senior National Security Council official Brett McGurk, considers these understandings "as major progress towards re-establishing and deepening relations between the two sides, and commit to assisting and facilitating as appropriate their implementation."

Representatives from Jordan and Egypt also attended the meeting in Aqaba.

The Jordanian port city of Aqaba. AFP

It was the first high-level meeting between Israel and the Palestinians since an acceleration of West Bank violence this year, following the ascendancy of a far right government to power in Israel.

The statement, circulated by the Jordanian Foreign Ministry, said the two delegations "affirmed their commitment to all previous agreements between them, and to work towards a just and lasting peace."

"They reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence," the statement said.

The declaration however, did not specifically refer to deadly Israeli incursions into the West Bank, which increased in the past few months, or the issue of Palestinian militancy, which Israel cites as behind the incursions.

It said the two sides agreed to "pursue confidence-building measures," adding that there will be another meeting in Sharm El Sheikh in March to "achieve the goals" agreed upon in Aqaba.

"They agreed to continue meeting under this formula, maintain positive momentum and expand this agreement towards wider political process leading to a just and lasting peace," the statement said.

In a nod to Jordan, the declaration said the five parties emphasise "the Hashemite Custodianship/ special role of Jordan" in Jerusalem, where the kingdom claims custodianship over the ancient Muslim and Christian holy places in the city.

Surge in violence

Jordanian officials regard Israeli actions against the Palestinians a as potentially affecting Jordanian interests if pressure on the Palestinians results in another wave of refugees to the kingdom.

Israeli raids in the occupied West Bank over the last year, in which more than 200 people have been killed, have also undermined the Palestinian Authority, which is nominally in charge of the area, and fuelled Palestinian revenge attacks.

The Israeli military said that two Israeli settlers were killed on Sunday when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on their car near the northern town of Huwara in the West Bank.

The attack came days after an Israeli raid on the West Bank city of Nablus this week killed 11 Palestinians.

Israeli media said attendees at the Aqaba meeting would include Palestinian intelligence chief Majed Faraj, and Israel’s National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Shin Bet chief Ronen Bar.

A Jordanian official said on condition of anonymity that it was crucial to halt the escalation before the advent of Ramadan and Passover.

He said "a period of calm" could "allow for confidence-building measures and lead to more political engagement".

The Palestinian presidency said the Palestinian delegation would demand the halting of "all Israeli unilateral actions" to allow for "a political horizon" to solve the conflict.

It was not immediately known who represented Egypt, which has traditionally acted as a link to Hamas, the Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip.

Earlier this month, King Abdullah II and US President Joe Biden discussed ways to reduce tension in the West Bank during a meeting in Washington, a week after the king met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Amman.

Israel says the raids on the West Bank are aimed at curbing militant threats.

The raid in Nablus was the second high-casualty Israeli operation in the West Bank since Mr Netanyahu's hardline government was installed in December.

Ten people were killed during a military raid in the northern city of Jenin in late January, followed days later by a shooting outside a synagogue on the outskirts of Jerusalem in which seven died.

At least three of the dead in Wednesday's raid on the Old City in Nablus were civilians. More than 80 people were wounded.

Updated: February 27, 2023, 6:10 AM