Palestinian man killed at West Bank checkpoint as Blinken begins Middle East trip

Bethan McKernan

The Guardian  /  January 30, 2023

US secretary of state to meet Israeli PM and Palestinian Authority president after spate of deadly attacks.

A Palestinian man has died after an altercation with Israeli troops, as violence in the region continued to spiral before the arrival of the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken.

Nassim Nayef Salman Abu Fouda, 26, was shot in the head at a checkpoint in the restive city of Hebron/Al-Khalil in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said on Monday. The Israeli army said Abu Fouda had driven his car into a soldier, and crashed it after shots were fired and he attempted to drive off.

Such incidents – and contrasting narratives – occur in the Palestinian territories on a regular basis. In the aftermath of Friday’s shooting outside a Jerusalem synagogue, which killed seven people in the worst attack in years, and the killing of 10 people in the single deadliest Israeli army raid in the West Bank in decades, each and every violent episode has the potential to spark a wider conflagration.

At least 22 people have been killed in the past week, with dozens of copycat and “price tag” or retaliatory attacks targeting both Israelis and Palestinians over the last few days, including shootings and the burning of cars and property.

Efforts to calm the security situation are likely to dominate Blinken’s long-planned three-day Middle East trip. He arrived in Cairo on Monday for talks with the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who remains a key US partner despite a grim human rights record.

On Monday afternoon Blinken travels to Jerusalem, where he will meet with newly re-elected Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and then on to Ramallah on Tuesday to hold talks with Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

“There is no question that this is a very difficult moment,” Blinken said in the Egyptian capital before departing for Tel Aviv. “We have seen, over many months, rising violence that is affecting so many.”

“The most important thing in the near term is to try to get some calm,” he told Saudi-owned news outlet Al-Arabiya on Sunday, according to a US state department transcript.

Other items on the agenda in Jerusalem include policy towards Iran and US-Israeli security cooperation, Israel’s stance towards the war in Ukraine, the dormant peace process with the Palestinians, and international concerns that the Israeli government’s plans for sweeping changes to the judicial system are undemocratic.

The state department said Blinken would also call for the preservation of the status quo at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is holy to Jews and Muslims.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right ideologue who holds a security post in Israel’s new government, in early January defiantly visited the site, which Jews call the Temple Mount.

Netanyahu returned to office last month at the helm of a coalition of conservative and religious parties that make up the most right-wing government in the country’s history. Elements of the new administration are vehemently opposed to Palestinian statehood, and have pledged to expand Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank, which is illegal under international law and negates the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict.

The US president, Joe Biden, has repeatedly reiterated support for the two-state solution, but acknowledged on a trip to the region last summer that a return to peace talks – which stalled in 2014 – was not likely in the near future.

Blinken’s trip is not expected to produce any diplomatic breakthroughs. His visit is part of the Biden administration’s push to quickly re-engage with Netanyahu, with whom the US president has a lengthy – and sometimes fraught – relationship.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, visited Israel earlier in January to discuss the all-but-dead Iran nuclear accord, and the CIA director, William Burns, reportedly met with leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah last week.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian