Israeli and Palestinian officials meet in pre-Ramadan push for calm
The Israeli-occupied West Bank has seen a surge of confrontations in recent months, with near-daily Israeli military raids and escalating violence by Jewish settlers, amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians. In previous years Ramadan has occasionally seen clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians, particularly around Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, revered as the Temple Mount by Jews.
Israeli and Palestinian officials met on Sunday in Egypt for talks aimed at preventing already surging violence from escalating even further when the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins later this week. Sunday's meeting in the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh "aims to support dialogue between the Palestinian and Israeli sides to work to stop unilateral actions and escalation, and break the existing cycle of violence and achieve calm", a statement from Egypt's foreign ministry said.
A reduction in violence could "facilitate the creation of a climate suitable for the resumption of the peace process", it added. The meeting was also backed by the United States and Jordan. It follows a Feb. 26 U.S.-brokered conference in the Jordanian coastal city of Aqaba, the first of its kind in years, which failed to halt violence on the ground despite Israeli and Palestinian pledges to de-escalate.
Over the past year, Israeli forces have made thousands of arrests in the West Bank and killed more than 200 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians, while more than 40 Israelis and three Ukrainians have died in Palestinian attacks. The Israeli-occupied West Bank has seen a surge of confrontations in recent months, with near-daily Israeli military raids and escalating violence by Jewish settlers, amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians.
In previous years Ramadan has occasionally seen clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians, particularly around Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, revered as the Temple Mount by Jews. Ramadan coincides this year with Judaism's Passover and Christian Easter. Egypt and Jordan were pushing ahead of Sunday's meeting to secure commitments including Israeli restraint during Ramadan around the compound, and the release of Palestinian prisoners, in return for a reduction in Palestinian attacks, according to an Egyptian security source speaking on condition of anonymity.
Palestinian militant group Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, condemned the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for taking part in the meeting attended by the Israeli government "which is escalating its aggression against our people". Hussein Al-Sheikh of the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organisation said a Palestinian delegation would be there "to defend the rights of our Palestinian people to freedom and independence, and to demand an end to this continuous Israeli aggression against us".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office declined to comment. Last month's Aqaba talks, praised by the United States as a "historic gathering", were immediately overshadowed when Jewish settlers went on the rampage in the Palestinian village of Huwara, setting Palestinian homes ablaze after a deadly Palestinian gun ambush.
SETTLEMENTS The Palestinians aim to establish an independent state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital - territories Israel captured in a 1967 war.
Peace talks have been stalled since 2014 and Palestinians say Israel has undermined their hope for a viable state by expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land. Israel pledged in Aqaba to halt discussions on new settlement units in the West Bank for four months and stop authorisation of outposts for six months.
But Netanyahu quickly appeared to downplay any commitment, saying there would be no freeze, in an apparent nod to far-right members of his coalition. Last month, Netanyahu's government authorised nine Jewish settler outposts in the West Bank and announced mass construction of new homes in established settlements. The move drew deep dismay from the United States.
In Israel this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Israeli leaders to reduce West Bank tensions. Washington was especially disturbed by settler violence against Palestinians, he said.
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