CAIRO (AP) – Israel and the Palestinians pledged at a meeting in Egypt Sunday to take steps to reduce tensions ahead of a sensitive holiday season – including a partial freeze on Israeli settlement activity and an agreement to work together to “curb and counter violence.”
But a Palestinian attack that injured two Israelis in the occupied West Bank underscored the hard work ahead as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches this week.
Israeli and Palestinian delegations met for the second time in less than a month, led by regional allies Egypt and Jordan, as well as the United States, to end a year of spasm of violence. More than 200 Palestinians were killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and more than 40 Israelis or foreigners were killed in Palestinian attacks during that period.
Following Sunday’s summit in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, a joint statement said the sides reaffirmed their commitment to de-escalate tension and prevent further violence.
These include pledges to stop unilateral actions, he said. Israel has pledged to halt discussions on building new settlements for four months and halt plans to legalize unauthorized settlement outposts for six months.
“The two sides agreed to establish a mechanism to curb and counter violence, incitement and inflammatory states and actions,” the statement read. The sides will report on progress at a follow-up meeting in Egypt next month, he added.
There were no further comments from Israel or the Palestinians. The deal marked a turning point, at least in words, but implementing the commitments could be a challenge.
A similar meeting in Jordan late last month ended with a promise to ease tensions. But the meeting was quickly derailed when a new outbreak of violence broke out the same day. A Palestinian gunman shot and killed two Israelis in the occupied West Bank, and Jewish settlers in response rampaged through the Palestinian town of Hawara, destroying property and killing one Palestinian.
While Sunday’s talks were underway, a Palestinian gunman again opened fire at an Israeli vehicle in Hawara, seriously wounding an Israeli man, medics said. The man’s wife was treated for shock. The Israeli military released a photo of the car showing the windshield riddled with bullet holes.
The Israeli military said the wounded man and Israeli troops opened fire and hit the attacker. The man was later arrested, the military said. His condition was not immediately known.
Hawara is located on a busy road in the northern part of the West Bank used by Israeli residents of nearby Jewish settlements. Many settlers carry guns.
Israeli pledges were largely symbolic. Israel recently approved the construction of thousands of new settlement homes and there were no immediate plans to approve more construction. However, mere talk of a slowdown in settlement activity could risk a backlash in Israel’s new coalition government, dominated by settler leaders and supporters.
Bloodshed has increased since the meeting in Jordan. Sunday’s shooting, coupled with the killing of an Islamic Jihad militant in neighboring Syria, has heightened tensions. The militant group, active in the northern West Bank, accused Israel of assassinating the commander. Israel did not comment.
In Gaza, militant group Hamas, which opposes Israel’s existence, praised Sunday’s shooting as a “natural response” to Israeli military raids and said the meeting in Egypt would not stop it. But he did not claim responsibility for the attack.
Mediators want to ease tensions ahead of Ramadan, which will begin this week and which will coincide with the Jewish holiday week of Passover next month.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no mention of Sunday’s summit at his weekly cabinet meeting. Later, he called the Israeli man who was shot a “wounded hero.”
“Anyone who seeks to harm the citizens of Israel will pay the price,” Netanyahu said.
Palestinian official Hussein al-Sheikh tweeted that the meeting in Egypt was meant to “demand an end to this continued Israeli aggression against us.”
The coming period is sensitive as large numbers of Jewish and Muslim worshipers pour into Jerusalem’s Old City, the emotional heart of the conflict and a hotbed of violence, increasing points of friction.
Large numbers of Jews are also expected to visit an important holy site in Jerusalem, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, an act Palestinians view as a provocation.
Under long-standing agreements, Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. But in recent years the number of visitors has grown, with some praying in silence. Such scenes have raised fears among Palestinians that Israel is trying to alter the status quo.
Clashes at the site in 2021 helped spark an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.
Israeli police said it was finalizing preparations in Jerusalem to “allow freedom of worship” for all faiths during Ramadan and Passover “while maintaining security, law and public order”. He said hundreds of police offices have been deployed, with a particular focus on the Old City of Jerusalem.
While the latest violence began under Israel’s previous government, it escalated in the first two months of the new government, led by Netanyahu and his coalition, the most right-wing administration the country has ever seen.
The government is dominated by hardline settlers. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister who oversees the police, was once relegated to the sidelines of Israeli politics, with previous convictions for inciting violence and supporting a Jewish terrorist group. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has called for Hawara to be “erased” after settlers’ rampage last month, apologizing after an international outcry.
The violence is one of the worst rounds between Israel and Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in years.
Following a wave of Palestinian attacks on Israelis last spring, Israel has launched near-nightly incursions into the West Bank against what it calls militant networks. But the raids have not slowed the violence.
So far this year, 85 Palestinians have been killed, according to a tally by the Associated Press. Fourteen people in Israel, all but one civilian, have been killed in Palestinian attacks.
Israel says most of those killed were militants. But youths throwing stones protesting the raids and people not involved in the clashes were also killed.
Israel conquered the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek those territories for their future independent state.
Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Fares Akram of Gaza City, Gaza Strip contributed to this report.