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US increasingly worried about West Bank situation as defence secretary visits Israel

March 9, 2023 at 10:15 am

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin makes a speech as he holds a joint press conference on January 19, 2023 [Abdulhamid Hoşbaş/Anadolu Agency]

The United States is concerned that escalating tensions in the West Bank could distract the attention of Israel and Washington from Iranian activities, an American official has said. This is a message that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin intends to deliver in Israel today.

According to Reuters, Austin delayed his arrival to Israel and the government insisted that the location of his scheduled meetings should be changed because more protests were anticipated against a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government to overhaul the country’s court system. It comes as three Palestinians were killed this morning, days after Israeli forces raided a refugee camp in Jenin in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, killing at least six Palestinians.

“Secretary Austin is perfectly capable of having conversations about both issues [the occupied West Bank and Iran],” said a senior US defence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. However, 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 advances and continuing regional and global aggression.”

Austin is expected to meet Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Netanyahu near Tel Aviv airport. Haaretz reported today that protesters were gathering near Ben-Gurion Airport in anticipation of the meeting.

The shooting of two Israeli brothers in an illegal settlement a couple of weeks ago triggered a revenge attack by Jewish settlers, who killed a Palestinian man and torched dozens of houses and cars in a rampage described as a “pogrom” by a senior Israeli army commander. The rampage in the village of Huwara triggered worldwide outrage and condemnation, which was increased when ultra-nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has responsibility for aspects of the West Bank administration, said that Huwara should be “erased”. Smotrich later offered a partial retraction.

Netanyahu sought on Sunday to soften the international outcry, saying Smotrich’s remarks had been “inappropriate”.

READ: US Defence Secretary aims to reassure Mideast allies, deliver tough message

“Verbal assurances to do more to reduce the violence are empty without action to do so,” said Mick Mulroy, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Middle East. “The US can play a positive role in assisting only if there is there is a willingness to work for peace from all sides.”

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 due to begin later in March.

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.

Last week, Israeli police fired stun grenades and scuffles broke out in Tel Aviv during a nationwide “day of disruption,” raising the intensity of protests against the government’s judiciary plan. In images not seen in Tel Aviv for years, police on horseback confronted demonstrators breaching barricades as traffic piled up. Live footage showed police dragging protesters off the road to shouts of “Shame” and “We are the majority and we are out on the streets”.

The judicial overhaul would give Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition decisive sway in picking judges and limit the scope of the Supreme Court to strike down legislation or rule against the executive.

In 2019, Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges, which he denies. He formed a government two months ago, promising his coalition partners would reshape the judiciary and entrench Israel’s control of the West Bank, where Palestinians hope to establish an independent state.

“Austin is committed to Israel’s security, but one of the dominant ways in which we’ve been able to work together and strengthen that relationship is because we’re two democracies that share values,” said the US official, adding that those values included the right to protest.

Dozens of Israeli air force reservists said on Sunday that they would not turn up for training in protest against Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, a jolt for a country whose melting-pot military is meant to be apolitical. Thirty-seven reserve F-15 pilots and navigators from the 69th Squadron circulated a letter on Sunday saying they would ditch 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 as often as once a week to maintain operational readiness. They sometimes carry out combat missions. They are designated as volunteers, with no legal obligation to attend training.

READ: US warns Israel against handing the West Bank to Bezalel Smotrich