Israeli officials deny Aqaba deal will freeze settlement building 'for even a day'

A wave of violence rocked the occupied West Bank as Jordan hosted talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. AP
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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denied that Israel agreed to freeze settlement construction for six months in a deal struck with the Palestinian government and the US after talks on Sunday in Jordan's Red Sea city of Aqaba.

The talks were attended by senior Egyptian, Jordanian and US officials trying to broker an agreement to de-escalate violence in the occupied West Bank before Ramadan, following a sharp increase in Israeli raids and militant attacks this year.

“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 parties to the meeting said.

But Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a far-right settler, immediately denied that there would be a freeze on construction.

“I have no idea what they spoke about or not in Jordan,” Mr 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].”

Mr Smotrich was given political responsibility for Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank last week, vowing to bring “legislation on all civilian [settlement] matters … into line with Israeli law” in a move that critics worry amounts to full annexation.

On Sunday evening, Mr Netanyahu followed up with a tweet that current settlement plans would “continue according to the original planning and building schedule, with no change”.

Israel's National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi also said that “there were no changes to plans”.

A joint statement on Sunday following the talks in Aqaba said the deal included “an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for six months”.

There was no indication that it would affect settlement expansions already agreed upon by the Israeli government. It comes just two weeks after the cabinet gave retrospective permission to buildings in nine West Bank settlements and agreed to 10,000 new settler homes.

It is unclear what Mr Smotrich's comments will mean for the deal or for Mr Netanyahu's right-wing coalition.

The participants will meet again in March in Egypt's Sharm El Sheikh and agreed to “maintain positive momentum and expand this agreement towards wider political process leading to a just and lasting peace”, their statement said.

US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan praised the “commitments by the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority to de-escalate and prevent further violence”.

“We recognise 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,” Mr Sullivan said.

The sharp increase in violence in the occupied West Bank also continued on Sunday when two Israeli settlers were shot dead in Hawara, leading to a wave of violence in the area and reports that settlers had set fire to Palestinian homes.

At least one Palestinian man was shot dead and scores were wounded, leading Israeli President Isaac Herzog to call for an immediate de-escalation.

The militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, condemned the Palestinian Authority's participation in the Aqaba summit, saying it would “not change anything”.

The group called on the Palestinian Authority to halt security co-ordination with Israel.

The meeting reflected concerns that violence would reel out of control as Ramadan approaches, coinciding with the Jewish celebration of Passover in early April.

A Jordanian official warned of “a very difficult dynamic on the ground with the escalation happening ahead of Ramadan and Passover”.

Updated: February 27, 2023, 2:43 PM