Israeli fire kills Palestinian as Pompeo holds West Bank annexation talks

Jerusalem (AFP) –


US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Israel Wednesday for talks on its plans to annex swathes of the occupied West Bank, as a Palestinian teenager in the territory was killed by Israeli fire.

Common foe Iran was also on the agenda for Pompeo's meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and incoming defence minister Benny Gantz, a day before a unity government agreed between the two men is due to be sworn in.

Pompeo was wearing a red, white and blue face mask as he arrived on his first foreign trip in nearly two months, which comes amid renewed unrest in the West Bank.

Israeli troops shot dead a 15-year-old Palestinian on Wednesday in the Al-Fawar refugee camp near the flashpoint city of Hebron, the Palestinian health ministry said.

The Israeli army said it had responded to "violent riots" with live fire and was investigating reports of Palestinian casualties.

It was the second death in clashes in the West Bank in as many days.

On Tuesday, the Israeli army suffered its first fatality of the year when a Palestinian stone-thrower killed a soldier during an arrest operation near Jenin.

Amid the renewed bloodshed, Pompeo was expected to discuss with both Netanyahu and Gantz President Donald Trump's controversial Middle East peace plan.

Netanyahu and Gantz faced off in three inconclusive elections in less than a year before agreeing to a three-year power-sharing administration.

Netanyahu, a right-winger in office since 2009, will serve as premier for 18 months with Gantz, a former army chief, as his alternate. The two will swap posts midway through the deal.

Their coalition agreement says the government can from July 1 begin considering implementing Trump's plan, which gives a US green light for Israel to annex Jewish settlements and strategic areas of the West Bank.

- Trump political priority? -

The Palestinians have rejected Trump's plan and cut ties with his administration in 2017 over its pro-Israel stance.

Their chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said Pompeo's team had not reached out ahead of the visit.

"The Trump administration is collaborating with Israel in its annexation plan in what is both an attempt at burying the rights of the Palestinian people as well as a blatant attack on a rules-based international system," he said.

Israel has controlled the West Bank since seizing it in the Six-Day War of 1967.

Nearly three million Palestinians live in the territory alongside more than 400,000 Israelis residing in settlements that are considered illegal under international law.

For the Palestinians and much of the international community, Israeli annexations would sink any hope of a two-state solution to the conflict.

Former US president Barack Obama's ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, told AFP that he believes the "Trump administration very much wants this annexation to happen."

He said the administration was less concerned about the logistical complications of annexation but wanted to ensure its staunchly pro-Israel voters, including evangelical Christians and conservative Jews, were energised ahead of presidential elections in November.

Netanyahu may be tempted to move quickly in order to help Trump in November and ensure annexation is a done deal before a possible unfavourable change at the helm of the White House, Shapiro noted.

But that would create substantial risks internationally and could cause division within Netanyahu's coalition, the former ambassador added.

Netanyahu's previous coalition had hardline pro-annexation right-wingers in key posts, notably outgoing defence minister Naftali Bennett.

Gantz has praised the Trump plan but warned against moves that threaten regional stability.

Experts have said Jordan might back away from its historic 1994 peace deal with the Jewish state if Israel annexes the Jordan Valley, a strategically crucial border region that accounts for roughly 30 percent of the West Bank.

- Iran accusations -

Pompeo and Netanyahu did not address annexation ahead of their closed door talks but offered fresh condemnation of Iran.

Pompeo said that even as the Iranian people face the Middle East's deadliest coronavirus outbreak, its government is using "resources to foment terror across the world, even when the people of Iran are struggling so mightily."

"It tells you a lot about the soul of those people who lead that country."

Netanyahu praised Washington's continuing pressure on Iran, a country he claimed was persisting with its "aggressive designs and its aggressive actions against Americans, Israelis and everyone else in the region."