US defense chief urges Gallant to de-escalate tensions in West Bank

Lloyd Austin calls Israeli counterpart days after an IDF raid on Nablus killed 11, including several civilians

Left: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a ceremony at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2023; Right: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, November 16, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)
Left: Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during a ceremony at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 1, 2023; Right: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a briefing at the Pentagon in Washington, November 16, 2022. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90; AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File)

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke late Friday with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, urging him to de-escalate tensions in the West Bank with the Palestinians after a deadly raid this week.

A statement from the Pentagon said Austin “encouraged the de-escalation of tensions in the West Bank, following a military raid this week that resulted in civilian casualties.”

Eleven Palestinians were killed and dozens injured in exchanges of fire during a military raid in the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday targeting members of the Lion’s Den terror group, which is based in the city.

Palestinian terror groups said at least seven of those killed were their operatives. It was not immediately clear whether the remaining four were involved in the clashes or not.

The Pentagon added that “Secretary Austin underscored his steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, and to Israel’s right to defend its citizens from terrorism.”

“The two leaders also discussed regional security issues,” the statement said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant’s office issued a readout from the call on Saturday evening.

Gallant’s office said the defense minister briefed Austin on the raid in Nablus, saying the military “foiled a terror cell responsible for shooting attacks in Israel and planning future attacks.”

The pair also “discussed the joint efforts to calm the area ahead of the holidays,” his office said, adding that Gallant “emphasized the necessity of continuing the uncompromising fight against terror groups” in the West Bank.

According to the Defense Ministry, Gallant also urged Austin to “increase operations to prevent a nuclear Iran.”

Gallant said Israel was “very disturbed by the continued enrichment of uranium… and emphasized the need and commitment to prevent Iran from having a nuclear capability,” according to the readout.

Austin is expected to visit Israel next month, according to the Defense Ministry.

Palestinians clash with Israeli security forces during a raid in the West Bank city of Nablus, February 22, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

The call came after the Biden administration expressed its “deep concern” Wednesday over the number of Palestinians injured and killed in the raid.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said the administration “is extremely concerned by the levels of violence in Israel and the West Bank” and noted that both “militants and civilian bystanders” were among the dead and injured.

Price noted that the Biden administration had “productive conversations” with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in recent days during which each agreed to take steps to de-escalate tensions.

“We are deeply concerned that the impact of today’s raid could set back efforts aimed at restoring calm for both Israelis and Palestinians,” he said.

The raid came amid a monthlong rise in West Bank violence.

In recent months, Palestinian gunmen — mostly members of Lion’s Den — have repeatedly targeted military posts, troops operating along the West Bank security barrier, Israeli settlements and civilians on the roads.

Mourners carry bodies of Palestinians killed during a raid by Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Nablus, during their funeral procession on February 22, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been high for the past year, with the IDF conducting near-nightly raids in the West Bank amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks that killed 32 people in 2022, and another 11 since the beginning of the year.

The IDF’s year-long operation has netted more than 2,500 arrests in near-nightly raids. In 2022, 171 Palestinians were killed, and another 60 have been killed since the beginning of the year, most of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, but some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under circumstances that are being investigated.

Palestinian gunmen opened fire from a passing vehicle at a military post near the northern West Bank city of Nablus on Friday night, the Israel Defense Forces said.

According to the IDF, several bullets hit the post near the West Bank town of Jit, west of Nablus. The gunmen managed to flee the area.

The IDF said troops scanning the area found several shell casings.

No soldiers were hurt in the attack.

Lion’s Den claimed responsibility for the shooting, saying it was in response to the  IDF raid.

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