Israel’s military occupation has received a symbolic US stamp of approval after Mike Pompeo toured an archaeological dig run by a far-right settler group and visited a settlement that farms grapes on land Palestinians say was stolen from them.
The trips on Wednesday and Thursday marked the first time a US secretary of state had officially visited settlements, a deeply provocative move that previous American administrations went to lengths to avoid.
Pompeo, who has been tipped to pursue a presidential bid in four years and whose base includes fervently pro-Israel evangelical Christians, flew by helicopter to Psagot Winery, which produces, among many wines, a blended red named in his honour.
The vineyard operates out of two settlements, Psagot, and its new location Sha’ar Binyamin, both of which are on land Palestinians say was taken from them.
Tamam Quran, a 25-year-old Palestinian high-school teacher who has American citizenship and claims part ownership of the land, said her grandmother used to pick grapes from the vines in Psagot, which Palestinians call Jabal al-Taweel.
“Growing up a five-minute walk from where we are here now, I woke up every morning to the settlement,” she said, speaking on Wednesday at a protest against the trip. Pompeo’s visit, she added, sent a message that if you have enough power, “nothing is going to happen, there are no consequences to your actions”.
Speaking at a press conference in Jerusalem on Thursday with the Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, Pompeo said the state department had historically taken “the wrong view of settlements”, which he claimed “can be done in a way that [is] lawful, appropriate and proper”.
A majority of world powers consider settlements as illegal under international law.
Pompeo later released a statement saying products from settlements could be labelled “Made in Israel”.
The night before, he had made a trip to the City of David, a huge tourist attraction next to the Old City in East Jerusalem, which is run by Elad, an Israeli settler organisation that seeks to strengthen the Jewish presence in the neighbourhood of Silwan at the expense of its Arab residents.
“Wonderful to see the work being done to preserve the ancient City of David and the new discoveries by archaeologists working in the area,” Pompeo, who is on a three-day tour to the region, tweeted on Thursday morning.
EU diplomats have criticised the dig as seeking to ignore the ancient city’s diverse history in favour of “an exclusively Jewish narrative, while detaching the place from its Palestinian surroundings”.
Elad has expanded by buying Palestinian houses and using Israeli laws that allow the state to take over Palestinian property. Approximately 450 settlers now live alongside almost 10,000 Palestinians in Silwan.
Delighting his Israeli government hosts, Pompeo also broke new ground by taking a helicopter to the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war and now claims as its own.
The US’s top diplomat had earlier announced on Thursday that Washington would consider a Palestinian-led boycott movement “antisemitic” and cut off government support for any organisations taking part in it.
“We will regard the global, anti-Israel BDS campaign as antisemitic,” Pompeo said, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which he labelled “a cancer”.
Other countries, such as Germany, have also condemned BDS as antisemitic.
However, the US step could deny funding to Palestinian and international rights groups that Israel has associated with BDS, and Pompeo said he would identify organisations engaged in “politically motivated actions intended to penalise or limit commercial relations with Israel”.
In 2019, Gilad Erdan, then Israel’s strategic affairs minister, threatened to ban Amnesty International over a report that called on websites such as Airbnb, Booking.com, Expedia and TripAdvisor to boycott listings in Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The same year, Israel deported the local director of Human Rights Watch for his alleged personal support for a boycott campaign, a charge he denied.
“[The] Trump administration is undermining the common fight against the scourge of antisemitism by equating it with peaceful advocacy of boycotts,” Eric Goldstein, the acting Middle East and north Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said on Thursday.
“Americans have a long history of supporting peaceful boycotts to promote social justice and human rights, like the civil rights boycotts in Mississippi or those against apartheid South Africa.”
BDS, which describes itself as a non-violent pressure movement, has rejected all claims of antisemitism.
“The fanatic Trump-Netanyahu alliance is intentionally conflating opposition to Israel’s regime of occupation, colonisation and apartheid against Palestinians and calls for nonviolent pressure to end this regime on the one hand with anti-Jewish racism on the other, in order to suppress advocacy of Palestinian rights,” it said in a statement.
Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and support for Israeli territorial claims has emboldened the country’s government and powerful settler movement.
Palestinians fear Israel’s hardline government and its backers in the Trump administration are rushing to impose a new status quo before the US president leaves office.