JERUSALEM — Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Egypt on Sunday, along with other Middle Eastern and United States representatives, in an effort to lower tensions and the potential for violent conflict during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts this week.
The meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el Sheikh came amid fears that this Ramadan could be a particularly violent time, after the deadliest start to a year in more than two decades for Palestinians and Israelis. So far in 2023, more than 80 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to Palestinian officials, most in armed clashes during arrest raids by Israeli forces, and about 14 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians.
A follow-up to a similar meeting held in Jordan last month — the first of its kind in years — the gathering in Egypt was expected to focus mainly on security issues and possibly include discussion of economic matters.
The broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not on the table at Sharm el Sheikh. Peace talks have been stalled for nearly a decade, and Israel’s right-wing government includes far-right parties that reject any such dialogue and aspire to annex all of the occupied West Bank.
The Sharm el Sheikh meeting, like the one before it in Aqaba, Jordan, was convened with the more modest goal of promoting calm and stability after a bloody start to the year, but there were few signs of calm ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan, a volatile period when Israeli-Palestinian tensions have sometimes escalated into broader conflagrations.
As the conference took place in Egypt, a Palestinian gunman wounded two Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. The shooting occurred at the same roundabout in Huwara, a Palestinian town, where a Palestinian man shot dead two other Israelis during the conference in Jordan last month.
The attack on Sunday prompted calls in Israel for the Israeli delegation to leave the conference early, and extremist settlers urged reprisals. “Erase Huwara. Now!” wrote Elisha Yered, an adviser to a far-right lawmaker in the governing coalition. “As long as we don’t address this, we will continue to be murdered in the streets.”
A New Surge of Israeli-Palestinian Violence
A recent spasm of violence in Israel and the West Bank has stoked fears that tensions may further escalate.
Last month’s shooting led to a wave of settler arson attacks on Palestinian homes in Huwara, and there were expectations of similar reprisals in the coming days, even before the start of Ramadan.
There is particular concern this year about the potential for conflict at the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam. It sits atop what Muslims call the Noble Sanctuary and Jews call the Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism, where two ancient temples stood. The location has been the focal point of repeated clashes in recent years.
During Ramadan, which begins at sunset on Wednesday, Muslims gather by the thousands every evening to pray at the Aqsa Mosque. This year the Jewish holiday of Passover, which also draws people to the mount, falls during Ramadan, starting on April 5.
Jews have increasingly ascended the mount in recent years and have started to hold prayers in the courtyard, despite a decades-old understanding that non-Muslims can visit the sacred compound but not pray there.
In an apparent sign of low expectations from the Sharm el Sheikh meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel did not refer to it explicitly on Sunday in his broadcast remarks at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting.
Instead, he spoke about the “struggle against terrorism,” saying: “Our forces are active around the clock in order to settle accounts with the terrorists and thwart terrorist infrastructure. Dozens of terrorists have been eliminated in the past month; many others have been arrested.”
Violence spiked last month even as the Aqaba meeting was underway. A Palestinian gunman killed two Israeli settlers in the West Bank, and that night settlers responded by burning and vandalizing scores of buildings and cars in several Palestinian villages, killing one Palestinian man.
Last week an Israeli man was seriously wounded when a roadside bomb was detonated in northern Israel. Israeli security forces said that they had shot dead a man they accused of planting the bomb and that he had probably infiltrated the country from southern Lebanon, in one of the most unusual security incidents along that border in years.
The Palestinian delegation to Sharm el Sheikh came under domestic pressure not to attend Sunday’s meeting after Israeli undercover forces on Thursday fatally shot two armed Palestinian militants who were their apparent targets, in the commercial center of Jenin in the northern West Bank, and then killed another armed Palestinian and a bystander as they were being chased by an angry crowd.
Hussein al-Sheikh, a senior Palestinian official, said the Palestinian delegation was attending the meeting in order to “defend the rights of our Palestinian people to freedom and independence and to demand an end to this continuous Israeli aggression against us.”
Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, represented the United States at the gathering.
A Palestinian group in Gaza fired a rocket toward Israel on Saturday night. Israel did not immediately retaliate against Gaza, but Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militant group based there, accused Israel on Sunday of assassinating one of its senior members, Ali Al-Aswad, overnight in Damascus, Syria.
Hamas, the larger Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, issued a statement mourning Mr. Aswad, an engineer, saying his killing “bore the hallmarks of the Israeli occupation.” Israeli officials declined to comment.
The rising violence comes amid an internal crisis in Israel, where hundreds of thousands of protesters have been taking to the streets weekly to oppose a government plan for a judicial overhaul that critics say will undermine the country’s democratic foundations. It also comes after the Palestinian Authority partly suspended its security coordination with the Israeli security establishment, a mechanism that has helped curb spasms of past violence.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since capturing it in 1967. Palestinians have long envisaged it as part of a future, independent state, a view endorsed by the United States.
But Israel has tightened its grip on the territory, including expanding Jewish settlements there, fueling Palestinian anger. Most countries consider the settlements violations of international law.
At last month’s meeting in Jordan, Israel committed not to discuss the construction of new settlement housing for four months and not to authorize any new settlement outposts for six months, according to U.S. and Jordanian officials.
But the Israeli government, sworn in late last year, has promised to grant retroactive authorization to dozens of settlements that were erected without government permission, some of them decades ago.
Israel also made it clear that it would go ahead with the construction of nearly 10,000 new settlement housing units that were approved days before the Aqaba meeting.
Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.