Pentagon chief ‘disturbed’ by West Bank violence and warns against inflammatory rhetoric

The Guardian  /  March 10, 2023

US Defence secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit was disrupted by protests against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes

The Pentagon chief, Lloyd Austin, has expressed his concerns over rising levels of violence against Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and warned against acts that could trigger more insecurity.

The US Defence secretary’s talks in Israel came as Israeli police killed three suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank and a Hamas gunman shot and wounded three people on a Tel Aviv street.

In a joint news conference with the Israeli Defence minister, Yoav Galant, Austin said his commitment to Israel’s security was “iron-clad”, but the US remained “firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric”.

“We are especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians,” he added.

The government of Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to continue the expansion of West Bank settlements considered illegal under international law.

Just hours before his arrival, undercover agents of Israel’s border police shot dead three suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank town of Jaba, near the northern city of Jenin.

Israeli police said they identified two of the men as operatives of militant group Islamic Jihad and that special forces had been in Jaba to arrest suspects involved in shooting attacks against soldiers.

“During the operation, shots were fired at the border police undercover officers from the wanted men’s car. Border police undercover officers responded with fire, and killed the three armed men in the car,” police said, adding the third man was also a suspected militant.

Another raid by the Israeli military in Jenin on Tuesday left seven Palestinians dead, including a member of Hamas accused of killing two Israeli settlers last month.

Later on Thursday, a Tel Aviv shooting by a member of the Palestinian group’s armed wing left three wounded.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, on an official visit to Rome, wished “a speedy recovery to the injured”.

The US Defence secretary’s visit to Israel was disrupted by the ongoing demonstrations against Netanyahu’s proposed legal reforms. On Thursday, thousands of Israeli protesters blocked roads in and around Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, forcing a last-minute change of venue for Austin’s talks.

Nine straight weeks of protests have been held by opponents of the reform plans, which would give the government greater sway in selecting judges and limit the power of the supreme court to strike down legislation.

On Thursday evening, Israel’s president urged the government to abandon its attempts to push through its changes, in what local media described as an “extraordinary” intervention.

Isaac Herzog, who has used his largely ceremonial role to mediate between the sides, warned in a televised prime-time address that Israel had reached a “point of no return” and called on the coalition government to rethink the proposed legislation, which is strongly backed by nationalist and religious parties.

“It is wrong, it is harsh, it undermines our democratic foundations,” Herzog said. “And therefore it must be replaced with another, agreed upon outline immediately.”

Austin referred to the proposed reforms at a news conference in Tel Aviv, saying: “The genius of American democracy and Israeli democracy is that they are both built on strong institutions, on checks and balances, and on an independent judiciary.”

The interventions by Herzog and Austin underlined the unusual depth of concern over the proposals, which Netanyahu – who is on trial for corruption – says are needed to rein in what he calls activist judges who have interfered in political decision-making.

Critics, who range from the business elite to former military officers as well as opposition parties, say they would destroy the system of checks and balances needed in a democracy and hand uncontrolled powers to the government of the day.

Opinion polls have found that most Israelis want the proposals shelved or amended.

Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report