A US official has stated that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Israel on Thursday to convey the message that the United States is concerned that rising tensions in the West Bank could divert Israel and the United States’ attention from Iranian activities.
More protests were expected against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government’s plan to overhaul the country’s court system, so Austin delayed his arrival to Israel and the government insisted that the location of the meetings be changed.
At least six Palestinian gunmen were killed on Tuesday when Israeli forces raided a refugee camp in Jenin in the occupied West Bank. Three Palestinians were killed on Thursday. A Hamas member was among the dead; he was believed to have been responsible for the shooting deaths of two brothers who lived in a Jewish settlement near the village of Hawara.
Despite the sensitivity of the topic, a senior US defense official has said that “Secretary Austin is perfectly capable of having conversations about both issues” (the West Bank and Iran).
However, Israel’s fixation on the West Bank Iran’s dangerous nuclear advances and continuing regional and global aggression “detracts from what the strategic threat right now is,” the official said.
Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant are scheduled to meet with Austin in the vicinity of the Tel Aviv airport.
A senior Israeli commander called the subsequent rampage by Jewish settlers, in response to the shooting of the two Israeli brothers, a “pogrom,” and said that one Palestinian man was killed and dozens of homes and vehicles were set on fire.
The ultra-nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is responsible for some aspects of the West Bank administration, said Hawara should be “eradicated,” adding to the worldwide outrage and condemnation that the attack had already prompted. Smotrich provided a qualified apology afterward.
On Sunday, Netanyahu tried to calm international tensions by calling Smotrich’s comments merely “inappropriate.”
Without concrete measures to curb violence, words alone are not enough. A former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, Mick Mulroy, has said that in order for the US to play a constructive role in helping, there must be a willingness to work for peace on all sides.
As the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover festival approach, there has been no letup in the violence.
Over 70 Palestinians, including militants and civilians, have been killed by Israeli forces since the beginning of the year, while 13 Israelis and one Ukrainian woman have been killed by Palestinians in seemingly uncoordinated attacks over the same time period.
During a nationwide “day of disruption” last week, protests against the government’s judiciary plan reached a new level of intensity, with Israeli police firing stun grenades and scuffles breaking out in Tel Aviv.
Police on horseback confronted protesters who had broken through barricades in Tel Aviv, creating scenes not seen in the city in years. While protesters yelled “Shame” and “We are the majority and we are out here,” live footage showed police dragging them off the road.
The Supreme Court’s ability to overturn laws or rule against the executive would be severely constrained by the proposed reforms, giving Netanyahu’s nationalist-religious coalition sweeping control over the appointment of judges.
Netanyahu has been indicted on corruption charges for 2019, which he vigorously refutes.
Two months ago, he formed a government on the promise that his coalition partners would strengthen Israeli rule in the West Bank, the territory where Palestinians hope to one day establish their own independent state.
One US official stated, “Austin is committed to Israel’s security, but one of the dominant ways that we’ve been able to work together and strengthen that relationship is because we’re two democracies that share values,” including the right to protest.
Shockingly, on Sunday, dozens of Israeli air force reservists announced that they would not show up for training in protest against Netanyahu’s judicial reforms.
On Sunday, 37 reserve F-15 pilots and navigators from the 69th Squadron released a letter stating that they would forego training flights in order to “devote our time to dialogue and reflection for the sake of democracy and national unity.”
Reservists in the Israeli Air Force are expected to fly as frequently as once a week to stay in top fighting shape. They are occasionally tasked with combat operations. They are considered volunteers and therefore are under no obligation to show up for classes.