By JOSEF FEDERMAN
JERUSALEM (AP) — Scores of Israeli settlers went on a violent rampage in the northern West Bank late Sunday, setting cars and homes on fire after two settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman. Palestinian medics said dozens were wounded.
The deadly shooting, followed by the late-night rampage, immediately raised doubts about Jordan’s declaration that it had received pledges from Israeli and Palestinian officials to calm a year-long wave of violence.
Photos and video on social media showed large fires burning throughout the town of Hawara — scene of the deadly shooting earlier in the day.
In one video, crowds of Jewish settlers could be heard reciting the Jewish prayer for the dead as they stared at a building in flames. And earlier, a prominent Israeli Cabinet minister and settler leader had called for Israel to strike “without mercy.”
Palestinian media said at least 20 vehicles and buildings were torched, and the Palestinian Red Crescent reported over 100 wounded.
The Israeli military said its chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Herzl Halevi, was rushing to the scene and that forces were trying to restore order.
The rampage occurred shortly after the Jordanian government, which hosted Sunday’s talks at the Red Sea resort of Aqaba, said the sides had agreed to take steps to de-escalate tensions and would meet again next month ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“They reaffirmed the necessity of committing to de-escalation on the ground and to prevent further violence,” the Jordanian Foreign Ministry announced.
After nearly a year of fighting that has killed over 200 Palestinians and more than 40 Israelis in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, the Jordanian announcement marked a small sign of progress. But the situation on the ground immediately cast those commitments into doubt.
The Palestinians claim the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip – areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war – for a future state. Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The international community overwhelmingly considers the settlements as illegal and obstacles to peace.
Late Sunday, the Israeli military, after beefing up its forces in the northern West Bank, was urgently searching for the gunman. But the army also had to send forces to halt the settler violence.
Prominent members of Israel’s far-right government called for tough action against the Palestinians.
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a leader of the settler movement who has been put in charge of much of Israel’s West Bank policy, 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.”
An Israeli ministerial committee gave initial approval to a bill that would impose the death penalty on Palestinians convicted in deadly attacks. The measure was sent to lawmakers for further debate.
There were also differing interpretations of what exactly was agreed to in Aqaba between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Jordan’s Foreign Ministry said the representatives agreed to work toward a “just and lasting peace” and had committed to preserving the status quo at Jerusalem’s contested holy site.
Tensions at the site revered by Jews as the Temple Mount and Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif have often spilled over into violence, and two years ago sparked an 11-day war between Israel and the Hamas militant group during Ramadan.
Israeli officials played down Sunday’s meeting.
A senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity under government guidelines, said only that the sides in Jordan agreed to set up a committee to work at renewing security ties with the Palestinians. The Palestinians cut off ties last month after a deadly Israeli military raid in the West Bank.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s national security adviser, Tzachi Hanegbi, who led the Israeli delegation said there were “no changes” in Israeli policies and that plans to build thousands of new settlement homes approved last week would not be affected.
He said “there is no settlement freeze” and “there is no restriction on army activity.”
The Jordanian announcement had said Israel pledged not to legalize any more outposts for six months or to approve any new construction in existing settlements for four months.
The Palestinians, meanwhile, said they had presented a long list of grievances, including an end to Israeli settlement construction on occupied lands and a halt to Israeli military raids on Palestinian towns.
Sunday’s shooting in Hawara came days after an Israeli military raid killed 10 Palestinians in the nearby city of Nablus. The shooting occurred on a major highway that serves both Palestinians and Israeli settlers. The two men who were killed were identified as brothers, ages 21 and 19, from the Jewish settlement of Har Bracha.
Hanegbi was joined by the head of Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security agency who attended the talks in neighboring Jordan. The head of the Palestinian intelligence services as well as advisers to President Mahmoud Abbas also joined.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who has close ties with the Palestinians, led the discussions, while Egypt, another mediator, and the United States also participated.
In Washington, the U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, welcomed the meeting and commitments to reducing violence. “We recognize that this meeting was a starting point and that there is much work to do in the coming months,” he said. “Implementation will be critical.”
It was a rare high-level meeting between the sides, illustrating the severity of the crisis and the concerns of increased violence as Ramadan approaches in late March.
In Gaza, Hamas, an Islamic militant group that seeks Israel’s destruction, criticized Sunday’s meeting and called the shooting a “natural reaction” to Israeli incursions in the West Bank.
“The resistance in the West Bank will remain present and growing, and no plan or summit will be able to stop it,” said spokesman Hazem Qassem.
Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The Hamas militant group subsequently took control of the territory, and Israel and Egypt maintain a blockade over the territory.
Israel has pledged to continue fighting militants in the West Bank where the Palestinian Authority often has little control. Israel also is led by a far-right government with members that oppose concessions to the Palestinians and favor settlement construction on occupied lands sought by the Palestinians for a future state.
Violence between Israelis and Palestinians has surged since Israel stepped up raids across the West Bank following a spate of Palestinian attacks last spring. The bloodshed has spiked this year, with more than 60 Palestinians killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, according to a tally by The Associated Press. Palestinian attacks against Israelis have killed 13 people in 2023, after some 30 people were killed in Palestinian attacks last year.
Israel says the raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks. The Palestinians say Israel is further entrenching its 55-year open-ended occupation of lands they want for a future state, as well as undermine their own security forces.
Ramadan this year coincides with the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover and worshippers from both faiths are expected to flock to the holy sites in Jerusalem’s Old City, which are often a flashpoint for violence between the sides.
AP correspondent Omar Akour contributed reporting from Amman, Jordan.
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