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News >  Nation/World

Israel tensions soar as protests prompt scaling back of US visit

March 9, 2023 Updated Thu., March 9, 2023 at 9:04 p.m.

By Gwen Ackerman and Ethan Bronner Bloomberg News

Israel’s move to curb the power of the Supreme Court saw tens of thousands take to the streets in protest, escalating a crisis that has spread to the army and prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to cut back a visit.

More than 20 people were arrested Thursday in the country’s biggest unrest in decades, according to police, following demonstrations in many cities across the country. Austin meet his counterpart, Yoav Gallant, in an engagement near Tel Aviv airport to avoid any disruption, the Israeli defense ministry said.

“America’s commitment to Israel’s security is ironclad,” Austin said after the meeting, though he urged Gallant – as he had Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier – to take steps to de-escalate the violence. He said the U.S. is disturbed by the violence and stressed democracy must have an independent judiciary.

Netanyahu, who regained power as head of a far-right coalition late last year, said his administration “will not allow anyone to screw up Israel’s democracy and cancel the decision of a majority.” That came after the chief of the army expressed alarm over a warning from soldiers that they may withdraw service.

The upheaval has been building since Netanyahu’s administration proposed handing the final say on the appointment of new judges to lawmakers and giving parliament the power to overrule high-court decisions. Opponents – mainly secular professionals as opposed to more traditional, religious Jews – see it as a threat to the Middle East’s most developed economy and democracy.

There are reports tech companies and investors are starting to move money out of the country while Moody’s Investors Service joined other major credit assessors in warning of risks to Israel’s debt rating.

Netanyahu met Wednesday with President Isaac Herzog, who is seeking a compromise over the judicial overhaul. Demonstrators are taking to the streets twice a week.

“Certain cracks can form that will be irreparable in the future,” Herzi Halevi, head of the Israel Defense Forces, said after a meeting with reservist commanders. “Refusal is a red line; it should not be in the military protocol. It is unacceptable to discuss refusal; it is unacceptable to act on refusal.”

The surge of domestic unrest has been accompanied by increased tensions in the West Bank. On Thursday, Israeli commandos operating near the city of Jenin sought to arrest what the army said was a cell of terrorists. The Palestinian health ministry said three were killed.

Some 78 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces since the start of the year, the most for that period since 2000, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

At the same time, 14 Israelis were killed in the West Bank, also the most in some two decades, according to the Israeli foreign ministry.

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