U.S. increasingly worried about West Bank situation as Austin visits Israel
March 9 (Reuters) – The United States is concerned that escalating tensions in the West Bank could distract Israel and the United States from Iranian activities, a U.S. official said, a message Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin intends to deliver in Israel on Thursday.
Austin delayed his arrival in Israel and the government insisted the venue be changed because more protests are expected against a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government to overhaul the country’s judicial system.
It comes after three Palestinians were killed on Thursday, days after Israeli forces raided a refugee camp in Jenin in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, killing at least six Palestinian gunmen. Among those killed was a Hamas member suspected of shooting dead two brothers from a Jewish settlement near the village of Huwara.
“Secretary Austin is fully capable of talking about both issues (the West Bank and Iran),” said a senior US defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
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But Israel’s preoccupation with the West Bank “detracts from our ability to focus on what the strategic threat is right now, and that is Iran’s dangerous nuclear progress and continued regional and global aggression,” the official said.
Austin is expected to meet Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Netanyahu near the Tel Aviv airport.
The shooting of two Israeli brothers sparked a revenge attack by Jewish settlers, who killed a Palestinian and burned dozens of homes and cars in a rampage described as a “pogrom” by a senior Israeli commander.
The rampage sparked worldwide outrage and condemnation, which was compounded when ultra-nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has responsibility for aspects of the West Bank administration, said Huwara should “go into hiding”. Smotrich later offered a partial retraction.
Netanyahu sought on Sunday to tone down the international outcry, saying Smotrich’s remarks were “inappropriate.”
“Verbal assurances to do more to reduce violence are empty without action to do so. The US can only play a positive role in aid if there is a willingness to work for peace on all sides,” said Mick Mulroy, an ex. US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East.
There has been no sign of an end to the violence ahead of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover holiday.
Since the beginning of the year, Israeli forces have killed more than 70 Palestinians, including militant fighters and civilians; in the same period, Palestinians have killed 13 Israelis and a Ukrainian woman in apparently uncoordinated attacks.
THE RIGHT TO PROTEST
Last week, Israeli police fired stun grenades and clashes broke out in Tel Aviv during a nationwide “day of disruption,” intensifying protests against the government’s court plan.
In images not seen in Tel Aviv for years, police on horseback confronted demonstrators who broke through barricades as traffic backed up. Live footage showed police dragging protesters from the street shouting “Shame” and “We are the majority and we are on the streets”.
The judicial overhaul would give Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition a decisive influence on the selection of judges and limit the scope of the Supreme Court to strike down legislation or rule against the executive.
In 2019, Netanyahu was accused of corruption, which he denies.
He formed a government two months ago, promising his coalition partners to reshape the judiciary and entrench Israel’s control in the West Bank, where the Palestinians hope to establish an independent state.
“Austin is committed to Israel’s security, but one of the dominant ways in which we have been able to work together and strengthen this relationship is because we are two democracies that share values,” the US official said, adding that these values include the right to protest.
Dozens of Israeli air force reservists said Sunday they would not report for training in protest against Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, a shock for a country whose military is supposed to be apolitical.
Thirty-seven reserve F-15 pilots and navigators from the 69th Squadron circulated a letter on Sunday saying they would abandon some training flights to “devote our time to dialogue and reflection for the sake of democracy and national unity.” .
Israeli air force reservists are required to fly once a week to maintain operational readiness. They sometimes carry out combat missions. They are designated as volunteers, with no legal obligation to attend the training.
Reporting by Idrees Ali. Editing by Gerry Doyle
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