RAMALLAH – The struggling Middle East peace talks have come under further pressure after Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to push more settlement construction.
Despite relentless US efforts to coax Israel and the Palestinians into reaching an elusive peace agreement, tensions between the two sides have shown little sign of abating as the negotiations, which are scheduled to last nine months, have limped past the halfway point.
After Israeli troops killed two Palestinians in separate arrest raids in the northern West Bank late Wednesday, December 18, and early Thursday, December 19, outgoing Palestinian negotiator Mohammad Shtayyeh said the "so-called bilateral Palestinian-Israeli negotiations are not going to take us anywhere".
"There is a strong party and there is a weak party, and the Israelis want to dictate rather than negotiate," he told journalists at a dinner in the West Bank.
"The Israelis want to replace occupation by force with occupation by an invitation, with our signature, and it will never happen."
In Ramallah, presidential spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina accused Israel of trying to scupper peace talks with the two shootings in Jenin and Qalqilya.
"This dangerous Israeli escalation aims to thwart American and international efforts to move forward with the peace process, and leads the negotiations to a dead end," Abu Rudeina said in a statement published by the official WAFA news agency.
In an address to his rightwing Likud party late on Wednesday, Netanyahu blamed the Palestinians for the lack of peace, and promised there would be no let-up in construction on land they want for a future state.
In the first of the two shootings, Israeli troops killed an Islamic Jihad militant in a confrontation in Jenin refugee camp Wednesday night, said sources on both sides.
In a statement, the army said troops had gone in "to arrest a suspect" but opened fire after coming under attack with gunfire, home-made grenades and explosive devices.
Several Palestinians were wounded in the exchange and one died on the way to hospital.
Palestinian security sources told Agence France-Presse the Israelis were undercover, disguised as employees of the PalTel phone company.
Several hours later, a Palestinian security officer was shot dead just before dawn during an exchange of fire in Qalqilya, the army said, describing him as a "known gunman" responsible for firing at troops.
Palestinian sources said the man, an intelligence officer, was shot three times in the chest as he was on his way home.
The latest deaths raised to 28 the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli troops this year.
'We will not stop building'
Meanwhile, just 10 days before releasing another 26 veteran Palestinian prisoners in line with commitments to Washington, Netanyahu vowed that Israel would continue developing the settlements.
"We will not stop, even for a moment, building our country and becoming stronger, and developing... the settlement enterprise," he said in remarks broadcast by army radio on Thursday.
He said the obstacle to peace was "the ongoing opposition to the existence of a national Jewish homeland within any borders".
His comments followed a report by the Haaretz news website that US Secretary of State John Kerry had urged Netanyahu and his cabinet "to exercise maximum restraint in announcing new construction", in tandem with the impending prisoner release on December 29.
Two previous rounds of prisoner releases in August and October were accompanied by Israeli announcements of fresh construction, sparking deep anger in Ramallah.
This week, in an opinion piece in Israel HaYom newspaper, former peace negotiator Yossi Beilin said Kerry had warned Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas that Netanyahu was planning to unveil 2,000 new housing units when the prisoners are freed.
Earlier this month, reports emerged that Washington was trying to delay the planned prisoner release.
Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot meanwhile said Thursday Pope Francis would make a brief visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories from May 25, his first to the Holy Land. – Rappler.com