Israel, Palestinians aim to curb violence as holiday nears

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FILE - Smoke from fires fills the air as Palestinians clash with Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Nablus, Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. Israeli and Palestinian officials are meeting in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh in a bid to ease tensions between the sides and rein in a spiral of violence ahead of a sensitive holiday period beginning this week. The meeting Sunday, March 19 was the second attempt by the sides, shepherded by regional allies Egypt and Jordan as well as the U.S., to end a year-long spasm of violence. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

CAIRO – Israel and the Palestinians pledged Sunday at a meeting in Egypt to take steps to lower 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 shooting attack that wounded two Israelis in the occupied West Bank underscored the tough work that lies ahead as the Muslim holy month of Ramadan approaches this week.

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The Israeli and Palestinian delegations met for the second time in less than a month, shepherded by regional allies Egypt and Jordan, as well as the United States, to end a year-long spasm of violence. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, and more than 40 Israelis or foreigners have been killed in Palestinian attacks during that time.

Following Sunday's summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, a joint communique said the sides had reaffirmed a commitment to de-escalate and prevent further violence.

These include pledges to stop unilateral actions, it said. Israel pledged to stop discussion of new settlement construction for four months, and to stop 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 communique said. The sides would report on progress at a follow-up meeting in Egypt next month, it added.

There were no additional comments from Israel or the Palestinians. The agreement marked a breakthrough, in words at least, but implementing the pledges could be a challenge.

A similar meeting in Jordan late last month ended with pledges to de-escalate tensions. But the meeting was quickly derailed when a new burst of violence erupted on the same day. A Palestinian gunman shot and killed two Israelis in the occupied West Bank and Jewish settlers in response rampaged in the Palestinian town of Hawara, destroying property and leading to the death of one Palestinian.

As Sunday's talks were going on, a Palestinian gunman opened fire at an Israeli vehicle in Hawara again, 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 assailant. The man was later arrested, the army said. His condition was not immediately known.

Hawara lies on a busy road in the northern part of the West Bank that is used by Israeli residents of nearby Jewish settlements. Many settlers carry guns.

The Israeli pledges were largely symbolic. Israel recently approved the construction of thousands of new settlement homes, and there were no immediate plans to approve additional construction. Still, mere talk of slowing settlement activity could risk a backlash in Israel's new coalition government, which is dominated by settler leaders and supporters.

Bloodshed has been surging since the meeting in Jordan. Sunday's shooting, along with the killing of an Islamic Jihad militant in neighboring Syria, added to the tensions. The militant group, which is active in the northern West Bank, accused Israel of assassinating the commander. Israel had no comment.

In Gaza, the Hamas militant group, 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 it did not claim responsibility for the attack.

Mediators want to ease tensions ahead of Ramadan, which start this week and which will coincide next month with the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no mention of Sunday's summit in his weekly Cabinet meeting. Later, he called the Israeli man who was shot a “wounded hero.”

“Anyone trying 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 continuous Israeli aggression against us.”

The upcoming period is sensitive because large numbers of Jewish and Muslim faithful pour into Jerusalem's Old City, the emotional heart of the conflict and a flashpoint for violence, increasing friction points.

Large numbers of Jews are also expected to visit a key Jerusalem holy site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount — an act the Palestinians view as a provocation.

Under longstanding arrangements, Jews are allowed to visit the site but not pray there. But in recent years, the number of visitors has grown, with some quietly praying. Such scenes have raised fears among Palestinians that Israel is trying to alter the status quo.

Clashes at the site in 2021 helped trigger an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

Israeli police said it was wrapping up preparations in Jerusalem to “enable the freedom of worship” for all faiths during Ramadan and Passover “while maintaining security, law and public order.” It said hundreds of police offices were being deployed, with a focus on Jerusalem's Old City.

While the latest violence began under the previous Israeli government, it has intensified in the first two months of the new government, headed by Netanyahu and his coalition — the country's most right-wing administration ever.

The government is dominated by hard-line settlement supporters. Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister who oversees the police, was once relegated to the fringes of Israeli politics, with past convictions for incitement to violence and support of a Jewish terror group. Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for Hawara to be “erased” after last month's settler rampage, apologizing after an international outcry.

The violence is one of the worst rounds between Israel and the Palestinians in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in years.

Following a spate of Palestinian attacks against Israelis last spring, Israel launched near-nightly raids in the West Bank against what it says are 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 of them civilians, have been killed in Palestinian attacks.

Israel says most of those killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.

Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek those territories for their future independent state.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.