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In Israel, Pentagon chief says US 'disturbed' by settler violence

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks to the media after holding talks in Israel
— Tel Aviv (AFP)

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, on a visit to Israel, expressed concerns on Thursday about Jewish settler violence against Palestinians and warned against acts that could trigger more insecurity.

The US defence secretary held talks in Israel as three suspected Palestinian militants were killed in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and protesters rallied against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right government.

Late Thursday, a gunman shot and wounded three people on a Tel Aviv street in an attack carried out by a member of the armed wing of Hamas, Israeli police said.

Austin said, in a joint news conference with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Galant, that the US commitment to Israel's security was "iron-clad".

But the US remained "firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric," he said, adding: "We are especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians."

Thousands of Israelis opposed to the Netanyahu government's legal reform plans had blocked roads in and around Ben Gurion airport, near Tel Aviv, forcing a last-minute change of venue for Austin's talks.

Just hours before his arrival, undercover agents of Israel's border police shot dead three suspected Palestinian militants in the West Bank.

Israeli police, security forces, and paramedics gather at the scene of a shooting attack along Dizengoff Avenue in the centre of Tel Aviv

And hours after his press conference with Galant, the shooting on a popular Tel Aviv street left one of the wounded in critical condition, emergency services said.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said a police officer "eliminated the heinous terrorist and saved many lives".

The dead gunman was widely identified online and in Israeli media as Motaz Khawaja.

Contacted by AFP, Salah Khawaja, from the Palestinian town of Nilin near Ramallah in the West Bank, said his son Motaz, a 23-year-old Hamas sympathiser, had made a "normal reaction for any young person who sees injustice by the Israeli army every day".

Austin, meanwhile, reported "a very frank and candid discussion among friends about the need to de-escalate, to lower tensions and restore calm especially before the holidays of Passover and Ramadan".

He also called on the "Palestinian leadership to combat terrorism and to resume security cooperation and to condemn incitement".

- Iran concerns -

In their meetings with Austin, Netanyahu and his defence minister raised concerns that Israel's arch-foe Iran is developing nuclear weapons, something the Islamic republic has always denied.

"It is our duty to take all measures necessary to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons," Galant said.

A woman protests against the Israeli government's controversial judicial reform bill in Haifa

Austin said "diplomacy is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon", while adding the US would not allow that to happen.

Their talks came ahead of Netanyahu's departure for Rome, which protesters had sought to obstruct using their vehicles to block access roads.

Nine straight weeks of protests have been held by opponents of the reform plans, which would give politicians greater power over the courts. They have drawn tens of thousands of demonstrators who regard the proposals as a threat to democracy.

Palestinians inspect the bullet-riddled car in which three suspected militants were shot dead by Israeli undercover agents just hours before Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin was due in Israel for talks

The mounting violence in the West Bank has coincided with the tenure of Netanyahu's government, which took office in December and is regarded as the most right-wing in Israeli history.

The government of Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has vowed to continue the expansion of West Bank settlements considered illegal under international law.

In the morning, the Palestinian health ministry announced the "martyrdom" of three men shot by Israeli forces in Jaba, near the northern city of Jenin.

- 'Shots were fired' -

Israeli police, who identified two of the men as operatives of militant group Islamic Jihad, said special forces accompanied by soldiers had been in Jaba to arrest suspects involved in shooting attacks against soldiers.

Mourners march with the body of one of several Palestinians killed during an Israeli army raid in the Jenin camp for Palestinian refugees

"During the operation, shots were fired at the border police undercover officers from the wanted men's car. Border police undercover officers responded with fire, and killed the three armed men in the car," police said, adding the third man was also a suspected militant.

Islamic Jihad condemned Israel for the "heinous assassination" in Jaba.

A Tuesday raid by the Israeli military in Jenin left seven Palestinians dead, including a member of Hamas accused of killing two Israeli settlers last month.

The Palestinian health ministry identified the seventh fatality from Tuesday's raid as Walid Nassar, 14.

Since the start of the year, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has claimed the lives of 76 Palestinian adults and children, including militants and civilians.

Twelve Israeli civilians have been killed over the same period, according to an AFP tally based on official sources from both sides.

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