US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged Israeli leaders to take steps to reduce tensions in the occupied West Bank amid surging violence.
Austin, who is on a regional tour, landed at Ben Gurion International Airport on Thursday for a visit that had been rescheduled due to escalating street protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.
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Hours earlier, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian fighters from the Jaba Brigades, affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in a raid in Jenin in the northern West Bank.
“The United States [remains] firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric,” Austin told reporters after his meeting with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.
“We’re especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians,” Austin said.
He met Netanyahu earlier at the airport for more than an hour, and a Pentagon readout of the meeting said Austin called for “immediate steps to de-escalate violence and work towards a just and lasting peace”.
Among West Bank flashpoints concerning the United States is the village of Huwara, where the February 26 killing by a Palestinian gunman of two Israelis from a nearby settlement sparked a deadly rampage by settlers.
One Palestinian was killed and dozens of houses were torched in the violence, triggering worldwide outrage and condemnation that increased when ultra-nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has responsibility for aspects of the West Bank administration, said Huwara should be “erased”. Smotrich later offered a partial retraction.
There has been no sign of any let-up in the violence ahead of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover festival.
Since the beginning of the year, Israeli forces have killed more than 70 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians. In the same period, Palestinians have killed 13 Israelis and one Ukrainian woman in apparently uncoordinated attacks.
The visit by the US Pentagon chief came as Israeli demonstrators intensified their opposition to a contentious government proposal to reform the judiciary.
Netanyahu reportedly had to be airlifted to the airport after throngs of cars and protesters prevented him from driving there. The demonstrations were part of nationwide protests under way for more than two months against Netanyahu and his government’s contentious plan to overhaul the judiciary.
“Israel is on the verge of becoming an autocratic country. The current government is trying to destroy our democracy and actually destroy the country,” said Savion Or, a protester in Tel Aviv.
Protesters also blocked main intersections in the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv and other cities. A small flotilla of paddleboards and kayaks tried to close off a main maritime shipping lane off the northern city of Haifa.
Some protesters barricaded the Jerusalem offices of a conservative think-tank helping to spearhead the judicial changes.
The uproar over Netanyahu’s legal overhaul has plunged Israel into one of its worst domestic crises to date.
Beyond the protests, which have drawn tens of thousands to the streets and recently became violent, opposition has surged from across society, with business leaders and legal officials speaking out against what they say will be the ruinous effects of the plan.
The rift has not spared Israel’s military, which is seeing unprecedented opposition from within its own ranks.
Netanyahu, who took office in late December after a protracted political stalemate, and his allies say the measures aim to rein in a court that has overstepped its authority.
“The protests show how solid our democracy is,” Netanyahu told the Italian daily La Repubblica ahead of a trip to Rome. “A reform is necessary. The judiciary must be independent, not omnipotent.”
Critics say the overhaul will upset Israel’s delicate system of checks and balances and slide the country towards authoritarianism. Critics also say Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, is driven by personal grievances and could find an escape route from the charges through the overhaul.
He denies wrongdoing and says the legal changes have nothing to do with his trial. Netanyahu and his allies have pledged to press ahead with a series of bills that would strip the Supreme Court of its ability to review legislation and give coalition politicians control over judicial appointments.
An attempt by Israel’s ceremonial president to defuse the crisis through an alternative legal reform has so far been unsuccessful.