Jordan hosted a meeting between top Israeli and Palestinian officials on Sunday to try to halt surging violence, an official said, as Washington and its Arab allies seek to defuse tensions that have led to concern of a wider escalation.
The discussions are part of stepped-up Jordanian diplomacy with Washington and Egypt to address violence, as anxiety mounts of escalation in the run-up to the holy Muslim month of Ramadan that begins in late March.
The meeting at the Red Sea port of Aqaba brought together top Israeli and Palestinian security chiefs for the first time in many years, officials said, and aimed to restore calm in Israel, the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
US President Joe Biden’s Middle East adviser Brett McGurk is attending, along with Jordanian and Egyptian officials.
Underlining the challenges, the Palestinian Hamas group – which governs Gaza – criticised the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) for taking part, calling it a "stab in the back of the Palestinian people".
A senior Jordanian official told Reuters the meeting aimed to restore calm while also giving Palestinians hope for a political future with an independent state on land Israel occupied in a 1967 war, including East Jerusalem.
"The objective is to reach an agreement on stopping all unilateral measures with a view to achieving a period of calm that would allow for confidence-building measures and lead to more political engagement," the Jordanian official said, asking not to be named because of the sensitivity of the talks.
"If the parties fail to reach agreement then the dynamics on the ground point to further escalation that will lead to violence that will hurt everybody," the official added.
In an unsourced report, Israel's Army Radio said the sides may discuss measures to boost Palestinian security forces in the West Bank as well as a possible curbing of Israeli settlement activity.
Israel's Maariv newspaper quoted National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi as saying: "Discussions were held with the Americans about how to create a new atmosphere by ending the unilateral steps that were taken in the past few months. We are willing to (accept) that."
Reuters could not immediately reach him for comment.
In previous years, clashes have erupted between Israeli police and Palestinians around Jerusalem's Al Aqsa mosque at the height of the Ramadan fasting month that coincided with Judaism's Passover and Christian Easter.
The Jordanian official warned of "a very difficult dynamic on the ground with the escalation happening ahead of Ramadan and Passover".
Jerusalem is holy to all three faiths. Jordan’s Hashemite royal family is the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in East Jerusalem.
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At least 62 Palestinians, including gunmen and civilians, have been killed this year, the Palestinian health ministry has said. Ten Israelis and a Ukrainian tourist died in Palestinian attacks in the same period, Israel's foreign ministry says.
Several Palestinian factions from armed groups within mainstream Fatah to Islamist Hamas and Islamic Jihad urged the PA to withdraw from the meeting, calling it a US-led plot against Palestinian aspirations.
Damascus-based Islamic Jihad's chief Ziyad al Nakhla received a call from senior Iranian official Ali Akbar Velayati in which the latter said he supported the "resistance of the Palestinian people, a statement by the Iranian-backed militant group said.
In Gaza, dozens of university students held a gathering to protest the Aqaba meeting and masked activists burnt pictures of Israel’s hardline minister Itamar Ben Gvir.
“How would we accept these meetings which concede the rights of the Palestinian people and the right to resistance?” said Youssef Seyam, a university student.
The PA said its delegation would call on Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank and move towards a peace deal endorsing a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Earlier this month, Jordan's King Abdullah met Biden and held talks with McGurk in which the United States – a staunch ally of Israel, Egypt and Jordan – warned of the threats to regional security and lobbied for a resumption of stalled U.S.-sponsored talks on Palestinian statehood.
Jordan and Egypt have been heartened by what they see as a more proactive US role and its criticism of stepped-up Jewish settlement building, officials say.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's return to power at the head of one of the most right-wing coalitions in Israeli history has added to Arab concerns about escalation.
Most world powers view as illegal settlements Israel has built on land it captured in a 1967 war with Arab powers. Israel disputes that and cites biblical, historical and political links to the West Bank, as well as security interests.