By Idrees Ali CAIRO (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s meetings with Israeli leaders have changed locations within Israel and his arrival has been slightly delayed due to protests against a government plan to overhaul the Israeli judiciary, a U.S. official said. The change in the Thursday meetings was made at the request of the […]
Israel protests impact Pentagon chief’s Tel Aviv visit
By Idrees Ali
CAIRO (Reuters) -U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s meetings with Israeli leaders have changed locations within Israel and his arrival has been slightly delayed due to protests against a government plan to overhaul the Israeli judiciary, a U.S. official said.
The change in the Thursday meetings was made at the request of the Israeli government, the official said on Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“Israeli officials insisted the meeting location be changed and said they had concerns about planned protests near the Ministry of Defense headquarters,” the official told Reuters during a stopover by Austin in Egypt for talks.
The Pentagon said Austin’s meetings had been relocated from Israel’s defense ministry to near Tel Aviv airport.
Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Israeli cities for the ninth straight week on Saturday against a plan by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right government to overhaul the country’s court system.
Saturday night’s demonstrations in Tel Aviv and other locations began peacefully. However, footage released by police later showed protesters breaking down barriers in Tel Aviv and igniting fires as they blocked roads. Police sprayed water cannons at the protesters.
The marches have attracted huge crowds on a weekly basis since early January, when Netanyahu’s government took aim at the Supreme Court.
The protesters oppose legislation sponsored by Netanyahu and his right-wing and religious allies that would limit Supreme Court powers to rule against the legislature and the executive, while giving lawmakers decisive powers in appointing judges.
The intensity of the protests has heightened since March 1 when Israeli police fired stun grenades and scuffles broke out in Tel Aviv during a nationwide “day of disruption.”
Israeli forces raided a refugee camp in Jenin in the occupied West Bank on Tuesday, killing at least six Palestinian gunmen, including a Hamas member suspected of shooting dead two brothers from a Jewish settlement near the village of Huwara.
U.S. officials said Austin will bring up his concern about rising tensions in the West Bank.
“He (Austin) will also be quite frank with Israeli leaders about his concerns regarding the cycle of violence in the West Bank and consult on what steps Israeli leaders can take to meaningfully restore calm before the upcoming (Jewish and Muslim) holidays,” a senior U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity.
Last week, the United States demanded that Netanyahu repudiate a call by his ultra-nationalist finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, for Huwara village to be “erased” – a comment that Netanyahu on Sunday called “inappropriate.” The U.S. State Department has called Smotrich’s comment “repugnant.”
(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Peter Graff and Mark Heinrich)
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