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

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 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 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 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 the newly re-elected Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and then on to Ramallah on Tuesday to hold talks with the 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.

NEWBlinken’s visit comes days after a visit from the CIA director, William Burns, and the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, amid an unprecedented level of attention on the region from the Biden administration, which is increasingly concerned that the upsurge of Middle East violence and democratic backsliding in Israel will complicate its two global priorities, to defeat Russia in Ukraine and contain China in the Indo-Pacific.

Provocative actions from Israel’s hard-right government will be a significant diplomatic liability at a time when the US is trying to isolate Russia further on the world stage.

“Much of the rest of the world says ‘Look how you behave on Palestine’,” said Daniel Levy, the president of the US/Middle East Project. “In one place, you back the aggressor, the occupying annexing power, and then the other you stand up against annexation and occupation. So don’t preach to us, don’t claim any moral high ground.”

With the stalling of talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and Tehran’s supply of arms to Russia, there has been a convergence of US and Israeli government positions on Iran, but Washington is also wary of Israeli military operations, like the reported drone strike on an Iranian missile facility on Saturday.

“The Gulf is nervous about an escalation with Iran,” Levy said. “Russia may well look at what its out-of-theatre options are, and something in the Middle East may look attractive.”

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 rightwing 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 visited Israel earlier in January to discuss the all-but-dead Iran nuclear accord, and the CIA director reportedly met leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah last week.

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