Pentagon chief tells Israel that extremist settler attacks in West Bank must stop

US has announced travel ban on Israeli settlers involved in violence against Palestinians

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, left, and Israel's Defence Minister Yoav Gallant speak in Tel Aviv on Monday. AFP
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Attacks by extremist Israeli settlers in the West Bank must stop, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said in Tel Aviv on Monday, while also stressing that he was not looking to dictate how much longer the war should end.

He also warned of an increase in Houthi violence in the Red Sea that is posing a threat to regional security as well as international shipping.

Speaking alongside his Israeli counterpart Yoav Gallant on his second trip to Israel since the October 7 Hamas attacks, Mr Austin reiterated America's “unshakeable” support for its ally but suggested that settler attacks were fuelling a cycle of violence and making a two-state solution harder to achieve.

“Attacks by extremist settlers against the Palestinians in the West Bank must stop and those committing the violence must be held accountable,” Mr Austin told a press conference.

“It would compound this tragedy [of the war in Gaza] if all that was waiting for the Israeli people and your Palestinian neighbours at the end of this awful war was more insecurity, fury and despair.

“Israelis and Palestinians both deserve a horizon of hope. So the United States continues to believe … that it is in the interest of both Israelis and Palestinians to move forward toward two states living side by side in mutual security.”

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have reported a sharp rise in violence from extremist Israeli settlers in recent months, as settlements expand under the far right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The US this month announced a travel ban on Israeli settlers involved in violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. The UK may follow suit.

Violence has surged in the West Bank since October 7, when Israel began its bombardment of the Gaza Strip in response to an attack by Hamas, which killed 1,200 people.

Mr Austin said he had also spoken to Mr Gallant about ways to reduce “harm to civilians in the battle space” and a need to get a sustained flow of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip.

According to Gaza health officials, at least 19,453 people have been killed and 52,286 have been injured in the enclave.

US calls for an end to settler violence in West Bank

US calls for an end to settler violence in West Bank

Nonetheless, Mr Austin reiterated that the US would continue to send weapons to Israel. Currently, US munitions are being used in Gaza without any end-use monitoring from the State Department – an issue that is putting domestic political pressure on US President Joe Biden.

“We'll continue to provide Israel with the equipment that you need to defend your country … including critical munitions, tactical vehicles and air defence systems,” the Pentagon chief said ahead of the news conference, according to a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister's office.

When asked how much longer the war might last, Mr Austin said: "This is Israel's operation. And I'm not here to dictate timelines or terms."

On the Red Sea, where Yemen's Houthis have unleashed a string of attacks on shipping in the key waterway, Mr Austin said Iran's support for the attacks “must stop”.

He told the press conference that the Houthi attacks are “reckless, dangerous and they violate international law”.

The Pentagon is due to unveil details of an enhanced maritime task force in the Red Sea this week.

Mr Gallant said the Houthis “threaten international freedom of navigation”.

“Their reckless behaviour, firing ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and against Israel can drag the region into war,” Mr Gallant said.

The hawkish Defence Minister said he preferred diplomacy in resolving the smouldering cross-border conflict with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon but said Israel maintains “the right to take all the actions necessary to defend” itself.

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Updated: December 18, 2023, 5:44 PM