Mike Pompeo became the first US secretary of state to visit the occupied Golan Heights, a territory Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War in a move that was not recognised by the international community.
Pompeo toured on Thursday parts of the disputed territory on Israel’s border with Syria under heavy security with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.
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“You can’t stand here and stare out at what’s across the border and deny the central thing that President Donald Trump recognised, what the previous presidents have refused to do,” Pompeo said.
The US secretary of state referred to Trump’s controversial decision in 2019 to recognise Israeli sovereignty in the area, a move that was decried by the international community and by Syria which defined it a “blatant attack”.
Pompeo condemned what he described as calls from “the salons in Europe and in the elite institutions in America,” for Israel to return the Golan to Syria.
“This is a part of Israel,” he said. “Imagine with (Syrian President Bashar) al-Assad in control of this place, the risk of the harm to the West and to Israel,” he added.
The Syrian government condemned the visit as “provocative”.
“Pompeo’s visit is a provocative step before the end of the Trump administration’s term, and a flagrant violation of the sovereignty of the Syrian Arab Republic,” said a foreign ministry statement, carried by state news agency SANA.
Earlier in the day Pompeo had visited the Israeli settlement of Psagot in the illegally occupied West Bank, becoming the first top diplomat from the US to do so.
Psagot is built on agricultural lands belonging to Ramallah’s twin city of al-Bireh.
“Many of the residents don’t have access to their farmlands – some of which is being used for the winery that Pompeo [will] visit,” Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett said, reporting from al-Bireh.
Dozens of Palestinians demonstrated outside the settlement and Israeli soldiers responded with tear gas.
The Psagot winery is part of a sprawling network of Israeli settlements in the West Bank that are considered illegal under international law and a major obstacle in peace negotiations.
But the US broke from the international community consensus and announced that it no longer considers the settlements as unlawful.
“During a news conference earlier on Thursday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he again reiterated that, saying settlements could be done in a lawful, appropriate and proper way,” Fawcett said.
“And so he is coming to the settlement to emphasise that.”
Pompeo had no scheduled meetings with Palestinian leaders, who have strongly rejected Trump’s stance on the decades-old conflict, including Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Executive Committee, said Pompeo is “trespassing on Palestinian land stolen by Israel” and “has done enough damage”.
Both @SecPompeo & @USAmbIsrael are trespassing on Palestinian land stolen by Israel for its illegal settler-colonial enterprise. You've done a lot of damage already. Just go away! #FreePalestine https://t.co/OAhdhqfnqL
— Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) November 18, 2020
In the news conference with Netanyahu, Pompeo also announced the US will label the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks to isolate Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians, as “anti-Semitic”.
He also said government support for any organisations taking part in BDS will be cut off – a step that could deny funding to Palestinian and international human rights groups.
Washington “will regard the global anti-Israel BDS campaign as anti-Semitic … We want to stand with all other nations that recognise the BDS movement for the cancer that it is,” Pompeo said.
For his part, Netanyahu said the Israel-US alliance had reached “unprecedented heights” under the Trump administration, and thanked it for moving its embassy to Jerusalem, abandoning the US position that Israeli settlements are contrary to international law, and taking a hard line against Iran.