Israel’s largest land seizure since Oslo Accords deals fresh blow to Palestinian statehood

Israel declared 800 hectares of land in the West Bank as property of the state on Friday, a move that will facilitate use of the ground for settlement construction. The area covers large swaths of the Jordan Valley, a vital region for a future Palestinian state, and is the largest piece of land to be seized by Israel since the early 1990s.

When far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced Israel would seize 800 hectares of land in the West Bank last Friday, it did not come as a surprise to Hamza Zbiedat. 

Though he is based in Ramallah, his family live in a small village close to the border between the West Bank and Jordan called Zubaydat, just north of the vast area now declared Israeli state land.

“Israel has fully controlled the Jordan Valley for the last 15 years at least,” says Zbiedat, who works as an advocacy officer for the Ma’an Development Center, a Palestinian civil society organisation. “The only thing left for Israel to do was to announce it.”

The Jordan Valley is a rich strip of land that runs along the West Bank, east of the central highlands. Sparsely populated, it has many open and undeveloped areas – making it a precious reserve for the future development of the West Bank.

According to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, almost 90 percent of the Jordan Valley region has been designated Area C, meaning it remained under full Israeli control after the 1995 Oslo II Accord.

“While there are those in Israel and the world who seek to undermine our right over the Judea and Samaria area and the country in general,” Smotrich declared, referring to the West Bank region by its biblical name, “we promote settlement through hard work and in a strategic manner all over the country”.

The area covers 8,000 dunams (800 hectares) between three Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank – Masu’a, Ma’ale Efrayim and Yafit. 

A few weeks earlier, on February 29, Israel appropriated an additional 300 hectares near the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim. 

Together, these areas represent the largest zone to be designated Israeli state land since the first Oslo Accords in 1993, according to Peace Now, an Israeli organisation documenting settlement activities.

A losing battle

Now that Israel has declared swaths of the Jordan Valley as its own, Palestinians can longer use the land.

“We guess it will help to expand Israeli settlements,” says Yonatan Mizrachi, co-director of the settlement-monitoring branch at Peace Now.

Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories occupied since the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, including East Jerusalem, are illegal under international law.

Read moreFrom 1947 to 2023: Retracing the complex, tragic Israeli-Palestinian conflict

In 2016, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2334 and demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory”, underlining that it would not “recognise any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines … other than those agreed by the two sides through negotiations”.

But the Israeli administration has repeatedly used orders like declarations of state land to take over Palestinian territories.

In recent years, the Israeli Housing Ministry even created subsidised home ownership programmes to combat the housing crisis and created a lottery system that lured Israelis to move into West Bank settlements.

The declaration of parcels as state land means the area can no longer be considered the private property of Palestinians by the Israeli state. The process facilitates settlers’ leasing or buying plots of designated land. 

Rights groups say it is near impossible for Palestinians to appeal these declarations. 

“There is a kind of bureaucracy that if you own the land, you can object in the next 45 days [following a declaration]. But it’s basically official,” says Mizrachi. “I would be surprised if Palestinians … go to court [to appeal].”

Up until 1967, the Jordan Valley was under Jordanian administration. After the war, Israel issued a military order that put an end to land registrations across the West Bank – meaning Palestinian families often lack the paperwork to prove they hold private ownership over their land. What’s more, Israeli authorities do not accept tax receipts, the only alternative recourse to prove property ownership.

Declarations of state land in occupied territories were halted in 1992 under former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. But two years after Netanyahu was first elected prime minister in 1996, he resumed the practice. Since then, around 40,000 dunams (about 4,000 hectares) have been designated state land by Israel, according to Peace Now.

“It might take years before [the land] is used,” says Mizrachi. “Then suddenly we might see a new outpost, a new settlement, new developments.”

The total area under direct control of Israeli settlements constitutes more than 40 percent of the entire West Bank, according to B’Tselem, which is also known as the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.

In 2023, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights found that a total of 700,000 Israeli settlers were living illegally in the occupied West Bank.

Limiting chances for a two-state solution

Israel’s annexation of this vast piece of land could make it even more difficult for Palestinians in the West Bank to move from the north to the south of the territory.

The parcels claimed in the end of February near Ma’ale Adumim create a continuous strip of state land between Ma’ale and another settlement called Kedar, marking a divide between the southern West Bank and the Jordan Valley in the north.

Current restrictions on movement such as Israeli military checkpoints already make it difficult for Palestinians to travel within the West Bank.

“I live in Ramallah. If I want to go see my parents in the Jordan Valley for Ramadan, just to eat Iftar (the fast-breaking evening meal during Islam’s holy month) with them, it would take me three or four hours to get there,” says Zbiedat, who works as an advocacy officer for the Ma’an Development Center, a Palestinian civil society organisation. “I don’t have time to go there after work and drive another four hours back at night.”

Part of the area seized by Israel is located close to East Jerusalem, and is what Palestinians hope will become the centre of a future independent state. Since the Oslo Accords were signed in the early 90s, little progress has been made on achieving Palestinian statehood. Experts, as well as the UN Security Council, say the expansion of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land is a major obstacle to a two-state solution.

Cases of settlements being built on land declared as state property by Israel have also grown exponentially in recent months. 

UN human rights chief Volker Turk published a report last month that found 24,300 housing units had been built within existing Israeli settlements in the West Bank between November 2022 and October 2023, the highest on record since the UN began monitoring the situation in 2017.

A natural greenhouse

“The Jordan Valley is very important for Palestinians in the West Bank. It is supposed to be one of the biggest areas to be part of the state of Palestine, with huge fertile land and a lot of resources,” says Zbiedat. “Two of the biggest aquifer basins of drinkable water in the West Bank are located in the Jordan Valley.”

Zbiedat says experts consider the Jordan Valley a “natural greenhouse”.

“For the last centuries, most of this land was an open herding area for Palestinian Bedouins or villagers with sheep, camels, cows, goats and so on. It was also cultivated by other Palestinians to grow lemons, oranges and other kinds of fruit,” says Zbiedat.

A few years ago, he travelled to the area now designated Israeli state land to take photos and saw that Israelis had begun paving roads and planting date trees.

“Dates have become the most famous crop in the Jordan Valley,” Zbiedat explains. “Agricultural expansion is important in this area … Now that the date trees are six or seven years old, settlers are making hundreds of thousands of shekels from this land.”

“And the workers are mostly Palestinians. But the owners are the settlers,” he says.

Though much of the region is uninhabited, more land confiscations would mean “less Bedouins, less animals, less Palestinian farms and a shrinking independent Palestinian economy,” Zbiedat sighs. “It means less Palestinians in the Jordan Valley.”

The same report published by UNHCHR chief Turk last month underlined the dramatic increase in settler and state violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem, notably since the war in Gaza began on October 7. Since the conflict began, “a total of 1,222 Palestinians from 19 herding communities have been displaced as a direct result of settler violence”, it reported.

The West Bank has also seen frequent Palestinian attacks on Israelis since the war broke out.

‘All for the benefit of settlers’

“[Settlers] believe they need to expand and protect what they are calling ‘a state land’ or ‘our patriarch’s land’ from Palestinians. They believe that any new settlement brings more security to the region. That is the main philosophy,” says Mizrachi. “As long as Smotrich controls the civil administration, he will continue this policy.”

Smotrich, who leads the far-right Religious Zionism party, is a settler himself as well as the head of the Israeli Civil Administration.

Last year, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu offered Smotrich a sweeping monopoly on construction planning and approvals in the West Bank by granting him the power to handle land-use issues. Netanyahu decided it was no longer necessary for himself and Israel’s defence minister to provide their formal sign-off on West Bank settlement constructions at every phase.

As a result, Smotrich was designated a strong authority figure of the occupied West Bank – a move the UN warned could facilitate the annexation of the territory.

For Zbiedat, the most recent land seizure is “a message to the US to say, ‘OK, you don’t want us to invade Rafah [in the southern Gaza Strip]? Then don’t say anything about what we do in the West Bank’.”

Smotrich made the announcement on the day US Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Tel Aviv for talks with Netanyahu about the war in Gaza.

The US State Department in March had also ordered financial sanctions against four Israeli settlers in the West Bank, marking a rare rebuke of Israel.

Blinken had also expressed his disappointment with Israel’s decision to approve 3,400 new homes in West Bank settlements on March 6. 

“It is a way to put pressure on the US government not to intervene when it comes to settlers,” Zbiedat says.

“But it is also an internal message to Israeli voters to say, ‘Look, we are expanding our settlements in the Jordan Valley’ … which they say will remain forever a part of Israel. They do not want to give Palestinians any kind of control to any kind of border [with Jordan],” he explains.

Palestinian authorities have condemned Smotrich’s announcement. The Palestinian ministry of foreign affairs called the latest move “a continuation of the extermination and displacement of our people from their homeland”.

Read more‘Freedom is paid for in blood’: In the occupied West Bank, families long to bury their dead

“In any case, it is important for people to know we are also living a siege here,” says Zbiedat, referring to the ongoing war in Gaza. “And it’s all for the benefit of settlers.”

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Can the Palestinian Authority lead a post-Hamas Gaza Strip?

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is working hard to involve the Palestinian Authority in a resolution of the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Despite having a significant security apparatus, a civil service and other trappings of a state, the weaknesses of the internationally recognised Palestinian leadership mean it may not be well positioned to play a meaningful role in Gaza’s future.

Antony Blinken reiterated Washington’s opposition to Israel reoccupying the Gaza Strip once its war with Hamas ends at a G7 meeting in Japan on Wednesday. “Palestinian people must be central to governance in Gaza and the West Bank as well,” the US secretary of state told reporters, adding: “Gaza cannot continue to be run by Hamas.”

But Washington’s stated opposition to an Israeli occupation of Gaza begs a key question: Who can lead a post-Hamas Gaza Strip?

Blinken’s recent trip to see Palestinian Authority (PA) leader Mahmoud Abbas may provide an insight into US thinking.

On November 5, Blinken passed through Israeli checkpoints on his way to Ramallah to meet with Abbas, his second trip to the region since the Israel-Hamas war began on October 7 and his first to the Palestinian administrative capital.

Blinken reiterated that the United States would like to see the PA playing a central role in any post-Hamas Gaza.

But according to Palestinian media, Abbas told Blinken that the Gaza Strip is an integral part of the state of Palestine and that the PA could only have a role there if Israel ends its occupation of both Palestinian territories within the framework of a “comprehensive political solution that includes all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip”.

“There are no words to describe the genocidal war and destruction that our Palestinian people in Gaza are enduring at the hands of the Israeli war machinery, with no regard for international law,” Abbas added.

The Palestinian Authority in 2023

Established in 1994 as a consequence of the Oslo AccordsYasser Arafat was elected PA president two years later. Today the PA formally exercises authority over only 18% of the West Bank, known as “Area A”. The remaining 82%, separated into Areas “B” and “C”, is controlled either jointly with or entirely by Israel.

Faced with the largest crisis in decades, Arafat’s successor appears more powerless than ever. The PA has been absent from the Gaza Strip since Hamas made gains in the 2006 legislative elections and its subsequent victory in the Battle of Gaza, which saw the Islamist group take complete control of the enclave in 2007.

Among Palestinians, the PA is deeply unpopular, seen as corrupt, repressive and in the service of Israel. But it has a semi-functioning political structure, a civilian administration, and security and intelligence services. It also receives financial support from the United States and the European Union as well as Saudi Arabia and other Arab League states.

There is limited data available about the Palestinian security apparatus in the West Bank but its forces are thought to number in the tens of thousands. These forces are divided among several agencies – including the Palestinian Civil Police, the National Security Forces and the internal Preventive Security Force, which includes the presidential guard – some of which are equipped with light armoured vehicles.

All of these forces loyal to Abbas are restricted to certain areas of the West Bank and have engaged in continuous security cooperation with the Israeli state.

Read more‘We are failing again’: UN, US resignations highlight splits over Israel’s Gaza assault

“The cooperation between the Palestinian and Israeli [security] services is extensive and has withstood any challenge. Every time Mahmoud Abbas has wanted to suspend security cooperation, the Americans have opposed it and he has fallen in line,” says Jean-Paul Chagnollaud, director of the Paris-based Institute for Research and Studies on the Mediterranean and Middle East (Institut de recherche et d’études Méditerranée Moyen-Orient).

“It’s an almost organic relationship, and for many Palestinians, security cooperation comes with no political return. That’s why many accuse the Palestinian Authority of a sort of collaboration.”

Chagnollaud says the idea that the PA would return to Gaza – with Israeli armoured vehicles – as part of an occupying army would be unacceptable to most Palestinians and politically untenable for Abbas and his government.

Can the Palestinian Authority govern Gaza again?

Frédéric Encel, a specialist in Middle Eastern politics at Sciences Po University in Paris, says the Palestinian Authority’s return to Gaza is the only viable solution.

Israel has no legitimacy and no intention of reoccupying, let alone annexing, the enclave,” he says. “Egypt, which occupied it until 1967, has no interest in taking charge. And no state will send peacekeepers to control the Gaza Strip.”

However, for a PA return to be possible, many preconditions need to be met.

“The first condition, which is not easy, is the demilitarisation of Hamas’s main forces, meaning its missiles and especially any terrorists who could enter Israel. As long as this condition remains unmet, the Israelis will not stop the war,” says Encel.

“The second condition is massive support from the international community. And the third is that the current Israeli government [of hard-right Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu] collapses in the short term.”

Encel has “guarded expectations” that these conditions can be established, particularly given Netanyahu’s plummeting approval ratings in the wake of Hamas’s attack in southern Israel. “This combination of circumstances is certainly difficult, but not impossible. All opinion polls conducted in Israel since the Hamas massacre on October 7 consistently give substantial advantage to a centrist and centre-left cohort who are not at all opposed to the two-state solution and the resumption of negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Read moreShock Hamas terror attack: The beginning of the end for Israel’s Netanyahu?

US bets on Abbas

The United States would like to have an “effective and revitalised Palestinian Authority take back governance and ultimately security responsibility in Gaza”, as Blinken told a Senate hearing in late October.

But the Biden administration’s hope faces clear obstacles, principally Hamas itself.  

Osama Hamdan, one of Hamas’s Lebanon-based leaders, said on Monday that his people “will not allow the United States to impose its plans to create an administration that suits it and that suits the [Israeli] occupation, and our people will not accept a new Vichy government” – a reference to the collaborationist government that controlled northern France during World War II. 

But the US project also faces opposition on the Israeli side.

Netanyahu once again rejected the possibility of a ceasefire in Gaza on Monday. He promised Israel would take “overall security responsibility” in the enclave after the war, prompting a round of denials from Washington, which made clear it would not support an Israeli reoccupation of Gaza.

But the US diplomatic initiative may have a long road ahead, since it would rely on an agreement between the Palestinian Authority and a future Israeli government – one run not by hawks and their far-right allies, but one willing to partner with the Palestinians to map out Gaza’s future.

This article is translated from the original in French.

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The Abraham Accords: ‘Palestinian leaders don’t realise that the region is changing’

Issued on:

Palestinian human rights lawyer and former diplomat Ghaith al-Omari, a prominent advocate of the two-state solution and negotiations with Israel, gave FRANCE 24 a lengthy interview on a recent visit to Paris. In this last of a three-part series, he discussed the Abraham Accords, which saw the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Israel and several Arab countries. 

Ghaith al-Omari has long been a key player in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, acting as a Palestinian negotiator at the 2000 Camp David Summit convened by then-US president Bill Clinton and again at the 2001 Taba Summit in Egypt. He was an adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas until 2006. With the peace process stalled since 2014, he now works as a senior fellow at the Washington Institute’s Irwin Levy Family Program on the US-Israel Strategic Relationship.  

Al-Omari was in Paris two weeks ago to unveil the Whispered in Gaza project – a series of short animated films based on the testimonies of Palestinians living in Gaza – at the French National Assembly.  

Former Palestinian negotiator Ghaith al-Omari pictured on March 22, 2023 in Paris. © Marc Daou, FRANCE 24

After speaking about the political situation in the occupied West Bank under the unbroken rule of the 87-year-old Abbas and the despair of Palestinian youth in the first two of this three-part interview series, al-Omari discusses the Abraham Accords, mediated by the US and signed in 2020. 

While the Palestinian cause remains popular among the Arab people, the signatories of the Accords have opened a new era for the region. Has this come at the expense of the Palestinian people?

I don’t believe that the signatories of the accords have turned their back on Palestinians. We are witnessing a new way of doing politics in the Middle East, centred in the Gulf. The Arab countries that are undertaking this new approach did this to pursue their national interests, and they have every right to do so. I think the Palestinian leaders don’t realise that the region is changing, they still live in the past, they still think that the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser [the former Egyptian president who championed pan-Arabism] will come back. They will not. Those good old days of ideologies such as pan-Arabism, pan-Islamism and Nasserism are slowly disappearing and no longer dominate (the region). 

This is the reality. And in this regard, Palestinians need to ask themselves if they can benefit from the new order when everyone else is focused on maximising their own interests, or are they going to remain on the sidelines and watch as history passes them by? I believe that there is a way for Palestinians to profit from the situation. As a former Palestinian negotiator, I can tell you that when we needed to effectively put pressure on the Israeli government, we call on Washington first, or course, and then Amman and Cairo. Why? Because the Arab countries that maintain diplomatic relations with Israel have the leverage to pressurise the nation’s leaders. And now, other Arab countries also have leverage. Let’s not forget that the United Arab Emirates have signed the Abraham Accords on condition that the Israeli government cease annexations of Palestinian territories. So, in a certain way, they’ve already delivered to the Palestinians. Palestinian leaders now have the choice of meeting with the leaders of these countries to express their respect of the decision to establish formal ties with Israel and seek out ways to profit from the situation, or do what they’re currently doing, which is condemning the new order and refusing to engage. 

How can the Palestinians benefit from the Accords? 

If they choose to engage, they will obtain strengthened political support from Arab countries. As we saw recently, the United Arab Emirates was willing to sponsor a UN Security Council resolution in support of the Palestinians in their fight against the construction and expansion of Israeli settlements. More than political support, there are also possibilities for economic benefits. Here’s an example: Two years ago Israel, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates signed a deal to address each other’s shortcomings. Jordan is a regional leader in clean energy production thanks to solar power plants yet remains one of the world’s most water deprived countries. The deal was then to build solar power plants in Jordan and desalination stations in Israel [editor’s note: Israel is a world leader in water desalination but is lacking in energy, particularly in the south of the country], swapping solar energy and water so that the needs of both countries are met. The United Arab Emirates meanwhile financed the project knowing full well that all surpluses sold would profit themselves. It’s a win-win-win situation. The Palestinians would have been a perfect candidate for this kind of deal as there are many project ideas such as those that they could participate in. There is much to gain but they need to make the choice of joining. The region is changing, and the Abraham Accords are here to stay. And we can see that despite the current tension between the Israeli government and its Arab counterparts, they continue to develop economic and security ties. 

Regarding the current state of Israeli politics, do the Accords help restrain the most right-wing Israeli government in history?

At the end of the day, the Israeli considerations will be primarily domestic politics, like all countries on earth. Nevertheless, with the Abraham Accords countries, today Israel has to think twice before taking certain actions. I can even tell you that according to an Israeli official source, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli diplomatic offices as well as Israeli intelligence community are all very sensitive to criticisms from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. They almost got used to criticism from Egypt and Jordan; they don’t take it seriously that much. But due to the popularity of the Abraham Accords in Israel, when these new partners criticise, the Israelis listen. So it creates a counter-pressure. We know, for example, that Benjamin Netanyahu held back his Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir when the latter wanted to take more provocative steps in Jerusalem. It is the prime minister’s fear of the United Arab Emirates, which has rapidly developed strong ties with Israel, cutting the relation that is getting him to really pressure his minister to refrain from some of these provocative actions. He doesn’t always succeed, he may not always want to succeed, but Israel is finding itself under a new pressure, without which the extremist elements of this government would be much stronger and much more assertive. 

From a broader perspective, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which once stood at the centre of international relations, seems to have been relegated to a regional issue. Do you agree? Has this helped facilitate a reconciliation between the signatories of the Accords and Israel?

Nowadays, the international community considers certain issues to be much more important, such as the war in Ukraine, China’s expanding power, Iran’s nuclear threats, not to mention the various crisis in Yemen, Syria and Libya. In terms of immediate risks, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has thus been eclipsed by much more risky conflicts. At a certain point, in the 90s’ up to the early 2000s’, there was a sense of opportunity, the idea that if you invest politically in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you might get results. Today there is no sense of possibility. The Western world and regional players have understood that Palestinians are too weak to sign a deal and the Israelis are not interested anyways in such a deal. Political leaders are hence looking for an opportunity elsewhere, and that’s why the Abraham Accords are so popular. If you were a leader, would you want to engage in something that will fail? Even so, the world has moved on. In the end, it’s up to Palestinians and Israelis to re-capture the world’s attention on the issue of their conflict. Ironically, the extremist and sometimes racist policies of the current Israeli government attract a lot of scrutiny and generated many reactions internationally. The recent summoning of the Israeli ambassador to the US department of state in Washington was almost unprecedented. Even Israel’s new allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, have begun criticising the nation all the time. It’s one thing to ignore this conflict, but if there is a collapse, especially around Jerusalem, it can have spillover effects throughout the Arab world, throughout the Islamic world. So it’s a reminder that the issue cannot be completely ignored. 

This article was adapted from the original in French

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Israeli settlers rampage after deadly Palestinian attack in West Bank

Scores of Israeli settlers went on a violent rampage in the northern West Bank late Sunday, setting dozens of cars and homes on fire after two settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman. Palestinian medics said one man was killed and four others were badly wounded in what appeared to be the worst outburst of settler violence in decades.

The deadly shooting, followed by the late-night rampage, immediately raised doubts about Jordan’s declaration that Israeli and Palestinian officials had pledged to calm a year-long wave of violence.

Palestinian media said some 30 homes and cars were torched. Photos and video on social media showed large fires burning throughout the town of Hawara — scene of the deadly shooting earlier in the day — and lighting up the sky.

In one video, a crowd of Jewish settlers stood in prayer as they stared at a building in flames. And earlier, a prominent Israeli Cabinet minister and settler leader had called for Israel to strike “without mercy.”

Late Sunday, the Palestinian Health Ministry said a 37-year-old man was shot and killed by Israeli fire. The Palestinian Red Crescent medical service said two other people were shot and wounded, a third person was stabbed and a fourth was beaten with an iron bar. Some 95 others were being treated for tear gas inhalation.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned what he called “the terrorist acts carried out by settlers under the protection of the occupation forces tonight.”

“We hold the Israeli government fully responsible,” he added.

The European Union said it was “alarmed by today’s violence” in Huwara, and said “authorities on all sides must intervene now to stop this endless cycle of violence.” The UK’s ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, said that “Israel should tackle settler violence, with those responsible brought to justice.”

As videos of the violence appeared on evening news shows, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appealed for calm and urged against vigilante violence. “I ask that when blood is boiling and the spirit is hot, don’t take the law into your hands,” Netanyahu said in a video statement.

The Israeli military said its chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi, rushed to scene. It said troops were being reinforced in the area as they worked to restore order and search for the shooter.

Ghassan Douglas, a Palestinian official who monitors Israeli settlements in the Nablus region. said that settlers burned at least six houses and dozens of cars in Hawara, and reported attacks on other neighbouring Palestinian villages. He estimated around 400 Jewish settlers took part in the attack.

“I never seen such an attack,” he said.

The rampage occurred shortly after the Jordanian government, which hosted Sunday’s talks at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, said the sides had agreed to take steps to de-escalate tensions and would meet again next month ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“They reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence,” the Jordanian Foreign Ministry announced.

After nearly a year of fighting that has killed over 200 Palestinians and more than 40 Israelis in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the Jordanian announcement marked a small sign of progress. But the situation on the ground immediately cast those commitments into doubt.

The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip – areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war – for a future state. Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements as illegal and obstacles to peace.

The West Bank is home to a number of hard-line settlements whose residents frequently vandalize Palestinians land and property. But rarely is the violence so widespread.

Prominent members of Israel’s far-right government called for tough action against the Palestinians.

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader who lives in the area and has been put in charge of much of Israel’s West Bank policy, called for “striking the cities of terror and its instigators without mercy, with tanks and helicopters.”

Using a phrase that calls for a more heavy-handed response, he said Israel should act “in a way that conveys that the master of the house has gone crazy.”

Late Sunday, however, Smotrich appealed to his fellow settlers to let the army and government do their jobs. “It is forbidden to take the law into your hands and create dangerous anarchy that could spin out of control and cost lives,” he said.

Earlier, in Israeli ministerial committee gave initial approval to a bill that would impose the death penalty on Palestinians convicted in deadly attacks. The measure was sent to lawmakers for further debate.

There were also differing interpretations of what exactly was agreed to in Aqaba between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry said the representatives agreed to work toward a “just and lasting peace” and had committed to preserving the status quo at Jerusalem’s contested holy site.

Tensions at the site revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif have often spilled over into violence, and two years ago sparked an 11-day war between Israel and the Hamas militant group during Ramadan.

Officials with Israel’s government, the most right-wing in Israeli history, played down Sunday’s meeting.

A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity under government guidelines, said only that the sides in Jordan agreed to set up a committee to work at renewing security ties with the Palestinians. The Palestinians cut off ties last month after a deadly Israeli military raid in the West Bank.

Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, who led the Israeli delegation said there were “no changes” in Israeli policies and that plans to build thousands of new settlement homes approved last week would not be affected.

He said “there is no settlement freeze” and “there is no restriction on army activity.”

The Jordanian announcement had said Israel pledged not to legalize any more outposts for six months or to approve any new construction in existing settlements for four months.

The Palestinians, meanwhile, said they had presented a long list of grievances, including an end to Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands and a halt to Israeli military raids on Palestinian towns.

Sunday’s shooting in Hawara came days after an Israeli military raid killed 10 Palestinians in the nearby city of Nablus. The shooting occurred on a major highway that serves both Palestinians and Israeli settlers. The two men who were killed were identified as brothers, ages 21 and 19, from the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha.

Hanegbi was joined by the head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency who attended the talks in neighbouring Jordan. The head of the Palestinian intelligence services as well as advisers to President Mahmoud Abbas also joined.

Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who has close ties with the Palestinians, led the discussions, while Egypt, another mediator, and the United States also participated.

In Washington, the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, welcomed the meeting. “We recognize that this meeting was a starting point,” he said, adding that implementation will be critical.”

It was a rare high-level meeting between the sides, illustrating the severity of the crisis and the concerns of increased violence as Ramadan approaches in late March.

In Gaza, Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, criticized Sunday’s meeting and called the shooting a “natural reaction” to Israeli incursions in the West Bank.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The Hamas militant group subsequently took control of the territory, and Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade over the territory.


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Ukraine in mind, U.S. frantic to avert Mideast showdown at UN

The Biden administration is scrambling to avert a diplomatic crisis over Israeli settlement activity this week at the United Nations that threatens to overshadow and perhaps derail what the U.S. hopes will be a solid five days of focus on condemning Russia’s war with Ukraine.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken made two emergency calls on February 18 from the Munich Security Conference, which he is attending in an as-yet unsuccessful bid to avoid or forestall such a showdown. It remained unclear whether another last-minute intervention might salvage the situation, according to diplomats familiar with the ongoing discussions who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

Without giving details, the State Department said in nearly identical statements that Mr. Blinken had spoken to Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from Munich to “reaffirm the U.S. commitment to a negotiated two-state solution and opposition to policies that endanger its viability”.

“The Secretary underscored the urgent need for Israelis and Palestinians to take steps that restore calm and our strong opposition to unilateral measures that would further escalate tensions,” the statements said.

Neither statement mentioned the proposed U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an immediate halt to Israeli settlements. The Palestinians want to bring that resolution to a vote on Monday. And neither statement gave any indication as to how the calls ended.

But diplomats familiar with the conversations said that in his call to Mr. Abbas, Mr. Blinken reiterated an offer to the Palestinians for a U.S. package of incentives to entice them to drop or at least delay the resolution.

Those incentives included a White House meeting for Mr. Abbas with President Joe Biden, movement on reopening the American consulate in Jerusalem and a significant aid package, the diplomats said.

Mr. Abbas was noncommittal, the diplomats said, but also suggested he would not be amenable unless the Israelis agreed to a six-month freeze on settlement expansion on land the Palestinians claim for a future state.

Mr. Blinken then called Mr. Netanyahu, who, according to the diplomats, was similarly noncommittal about the six-month settlement freeze. Mr. Netanyahu also repeated Israeli opposition to reopening the consulate, which was closed during President Donald Trump’s administration, they said.

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The U.S. and others were hoping to resolve the deadlock on Sunday, but the diplomats said it was unclear if that was possible.

Derailing Ukraine talks

The drama arose just ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which will be the subject of special U.N. General Assembly and Security Council sessions on Thursday and Friday.

The U.S. opposes the Palestinian resolution and is almost certain to veto it. Not vetoing would carry a considerable domestic political risk for Mr. Biden on the cusp of the 2024 presidential race and top House Republicans have already warned against it.

But the administration also fears that using its veto to protect Israel risks losing support at the world body for measures condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Senior officials from the White House, the State Department and the U.S. Mission to the U.N. have already engaged frantic but fruitless diplomacy to try to persuade the Palestinians to back down. The dire nature of the situation prompted Mr. Blinken’s calls on Saturday, the diplomats said.

The Biden administration has already said publicly that it does not support the resolution, calling it “unhelpful”. But it has also said the same about recent Israeli settlement expansion announcements.

U.N. diplomats say the U.S wants to replace the Palestinian resolution, which would be legally binding, with a weaker presidential statement, or at least delay a vote on the resolution until after the Ukraine war anniversary.

Palestinian push

The Palestinian push comes as Israel’s new right-wing government has reaffirmed its commitment to construct new settlements in the West Bank and expand its authority on land the Palestinians seek for a future state.

Israel captured the West Bank, along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, in the 1967 Mideast war. The United Nations and most of the international community consider Israeli settlements illegal and an obstacle to ending the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Ultranationalists who oppose Palestinian statehood comprise a majority of Israel’s new government, which has declared settlement construction a top priority.

The draft resolution, circulated by the United Arab Emirates, the Arab representative on the council, would reaffirm the Security Council’s “unwavering commitment” to a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace as democratic states.

It would also reaffirm the U.N. Charter’s provision against acquiring territory by force and reaffirm that any such acquisition is illegal.

Last Tuesday, Mr. Blinken and the top diplomats from Britain, France, Germany and Italy condemned Israel’s plans to build 10,000 new homes in existing settlements in the West Bank and retroactively legalise nine outposts. Mr. Netanyahu’s Cabinet had announced the measure two days earlier, following a surge in violence in Jerusalem.

In December 2016, the Security Council demanded that Israel “immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem”. It stressed that halting settlement activities “is essential for salvaging the two-state solution.”

That resolution was adopted after President Barack Obama’s administration abstained in the vote, a reversal of the United States’ longstanding practice of protecting its close ally Israel from action at the United Nations, including by vetoing Arab-supported resolutions.

The draft resolution before the council now is much shorter than the 2016 document, though it reiterates its key points and much of what the U.S. and Europeans already said last week.

Complicating the matter for the U.S., the Security Council resolution was introduced and is supported by the UAE, an Arab partner of the United States that has also normalised relations with Israel, even as it has taken a tepid stance on opposing Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

The U.S. will be looking to the UAE and other council members sympathetic to the Palestinians to vote in favour of resolutions condemning Russia for invading Ukraine and calling for a cessation of hostilities and the immediate withdrawal of all Russian forces.

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