Israel soldier killed in West Bank ahead of annexation talks

Yaabad (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) –


The Israeli army suffered its first fatality this year on Tuesday when a Palestinian stonethrower killed a soldier in the occupied West Bank, a day before US-Israeli talks on annexation.

The army said the 21-year-old soldier was hit in the head "during operational activity" in the village of Yaabad near the northern city of Jenin.

Palestinian security sources said that clashes erupted overnight when Israeli forces raided the village.

The unrest came a day before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is due in Jerusalem for discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoming defence minister Benny Gantz.

The US-Israel meeting, a day before a new Israeli government is due to be sworn in, will focus partly on President Donald Trump's controversial Middle East peace plan.

The plan, categorically rejected by the Palestinians, gives Israel the green light to annex Jewish settlements and strategic areas of of the West Bank.

For much of the international community, such a move by Israel would amount to a grave violation of international law and crush hopes of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It would also likely further inflame regional tensions.

Under the terms of the Netanyahu-Gantz coalition agreements, West Bank annexation plans can be brought to parliament or cabinet from July 1.

- 'Known hotspot' -

Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said troops had entered Yaabad to round up Palestinian suspects.

He described the village as "a known hotspot of terrorists and sympathisers and supporters of terrorist activities".

The forces were leaving the village when the rock was thrown, striking the soldier on the head, he said, adding that troops were searching for the perpetrator.

Israeli troops remained in the village at noon Tuesday and were searching and arresting local residents, an AFP photographer said.

Conricus said it was the first death of a soldier in combat this year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that the "long arm of Israel will reach the terrorist and settle accounts with him."

The circumstances echoed the May 2018 killing of a special forces sergeant during an arrest operation in Al-Amari Palestinian refugee camp near the West Bank city of Ramallah.

In that incident the soldier was killed by a stone block dropped on his head from a building.

The attacker was convicted by an Israeli military court and given a life sentence.

- Pompeo visit -

In an interview ahead of his visit with pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom, Pompeo was quoted as saying that the implementation of West Bank annexations laid out in Trump's plan were ultimately an Israeli decision.

"We will share our opinions in the best way possible," Pompeo told the paper.

"We've made clear what we believe meets the requirements of international law. We've made clear that Israel can make its legal decisions."

Israel has controlled the West Bank since seizing it in the Six-Day War of 1967, with nearly three million Palestinian residents living alongside roughly 400,000 Israelis residing in settlements considered illegal under international law.