US defence secretary cuts short trip to Israel ahead of mass protests

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin will cut short his trip to Israel as demonstrators prepare for a mass protest against government plans to overhaul the judiciary.

Israeli officials were worried they would be unable to secure the route to the Kirya defence ministry in Tel Aviv, where Austin was to meet his counterpart Yoav Gallant. The defence complex is near a road that has been the site of weeks of demonstrations against judicial changes pushed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government.

Pentagon press secretary Brig Gen Patrick Ryder said: “At the request of the Israeli ministry of defence, the location of secretary Austin’s bilateral meetings on Thursday in Tel Aviv with Israeli leaders will be relocated from the ministry of defence to a location near the airport. I would refer you to the Israel MOD for further questions.”

Israel has been rocked by the biggest wave of protests for more than a decade, with hundreds of thousands of Israelis joining weekly demonstrations against changes they regard as a fundamental threat to the country’s democratic institutions.

In a sign of the widening scope of public anger, a group of reservists from an elite air force squadron said this week that they would not take part in training flights. The pilots subsequently agreed to report to their base for “dialogue” after appeals from officials to abandon the protest plan.

The political turmoil has coincided with a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank. Israeli forces have killed more than 65 Palestinians while Palestinians have killed 13 Israelis and one Ukrainian since the beginning of the year, stoking fears of a broader escalation of the conflict.

Thursday’s protest, which organisers dubbed a “day of resistance to the dictatorship”, is intended to disrupt daily life, including blocking roads to Ben Gurion airport to prevent Netanyahu from making an official visit to Italy. He is meant to leave on Thursday evening.

Austin is also expected to meet Netanyahu near the airport.

The US has watched the growing protest movement with concern, with President Joe Biden and senior administration officials urging Israel to build consensus before enacting any big changes.

Austin’s visit comes amid heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians ahead of Ramadan and Passover. He plans to press Israeli officials to take steps towards calm, particularly after violence has continued to simmer following a US-organised summit in Jordan last month.

“What we need to do is be bringing together the security and political leadership of the stakeholders that can wind down violence and restore calm,” a US defence official said.

Israel raided a refugee camp in Jenin on Tuesday, killing six Palestinian gunmen, including a Hamas member suspected of shooting dead two brothers from a Jewish settlement near Huwara last month.

The shooting in Huwara was followed by a rampage through the town and surrounding villages by about 400 settlers who torched buildings and cars in what a senior Israeli military official described as a “pogrom”. 

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