Netanyahu says no freeze in settlement construction in West Bank

Barely hours after Jordan hosted a meeting between Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the Red Sea city of Aqaba, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the building of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank will continue to go ahead.

Sunday’s meeting, which was also attended by Egypt and the United States, was called in order to discuss steps to de-escalate tensions amid surging violence in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The Jordanian foreign ministry published the closing statement of the Aqaba summit, saying: “The Government of Israel and the Palestinian National Authority confirmed their joint readiness and commitment to immediately work to end unilateral measures for a period of 3-6 months.”

“This includes an Israeli commitment to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months and to stop authorisation of any outposts for six months,” it added.

​​The participants agreed to meet again in Egypt’s resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh next month for further talks.

However, after the statement was announced, Netanyahu tweeted that there “will not be any freeze” with regards to settlement construction.

“The building and authorisation in Judea and Samaria will continue according to the original planning and building schedule, with no change,” he said, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

Under international law, settlements built in occupied territories are considered illegal.

A number of top ministers in Israel also confirmed that the Israeli government will not temporarily halt the announcement of new illegal settlement units.

In a statement on Sunday night, Israeli National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, who headed the Israeli delegation at the summit, said that Israel will authorise nine settlement outposts in the coming months and will approve 9,500 settlement units in the occupied West Bank.

“There is no settlement construction freeze or change in the status quo on the Temple Mount, neither is there any restriction on IDF activity,” he continued, referring to the Israeli army.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who also holds a position in the defence ministry,  said on Twitter that he had “no clue what they talked or didn’t talk about in Jordan”.

“The one thing I do know: there will not be a freeze on construction and development in settlements, not even for one day,” said Smotrich, who himself lives in a settlement in the occupied West Bank and has previously called for the expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who also lives in an illegal settlement in the occupied West Bank and has publicly called for violence against Palestinians, said on Twitter: “What happened in Jordan (if it happened), will remain in Jordan.”

Escalating tensions

The Aqaba summit was the first of its kind since the US-sponsored talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority collapsed in 2014 over Israel’s refusal to halt the settlement constructions and release Palestinians imprisoned before 1993.

The meeting came amid escalating tensions across the occupied territories following Israeli military raids in Palestinian towns.

On Sunday, a Palestinian gunman shot dead two Israeli settlers who were driving through the Palestinian town of Huwara near the occupied West Bank city of Nablus.

Settlers then descended upon Huwara, and under the protection of the Israeli army, burned dozens of Palestinian homes and cars. A Palestinian medic was also shot dead by a settler.

Smotrich 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”.

The Palestinian armed group Islamic Jihad heralded the killing of two Israelis as a “heroic operation”.

“It sends a strong message to the Aqaba summit that our [Palestinian] resistance is present,” said Islamic Jihad, which had joined Hamas and other armed groups in opposing the Jordan talks.

The violence follows the deadliest year for Palestinians in the West Bank since 2005 – violence that has continued since Netanyahu returned to power in December.

He leads an alliance with ultra-Orthodox and extreme-right parties and has promised to continue Israeli settlement expansion in the Palestinian territory.

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