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Mass protests force Israeli leaders to meet Pentagon chief at airport

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Thousands protest against plans by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition administration to reform the judicial system, in Tel Aviv, the Israeli-occupied territories, on March 9, 2023. (Photo by AP)

Thousands of demonstrators have blocked traffic into the departures area at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv and clashed with military forces, where Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin landed for talks.

Police on Thursday fired tear gas to disperse the crowds and arrested several people during "a day of resistance" protests which were timed to coincided with Austin's arrival and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's trip abroad. 

Austin had to hastily reschedule the visit due to a surge in street protests against Netanyahu's plan to overhaul the judiciary which is putting Israel on an extremist path.

The Pentagon chief met Netanyahu at the airport for more than an hour and was due to hold talks with his Israeli counterpart Yoav Galant, reports said. 

Austin had originally been due to arrive on Wednesday and stay overnight in Tel Aviv, where Israel's ministry of military affairs is based. But those plans were changed due to traffic disruptions from protests.

Netanyahu was flown to the airport early in the morning by a helicopter in order to avoid the protesters. He was due to leave Ben Gurion airport for a two-day visit to Rome on Thursday afternoon.

Police minister Itamar Ben-Gvir was at the airport coordinating the response to the protests. Mounted police moved into the area in an attempt to move the protesters.

Elsewhere, protesters in Tel Aviv headed towards Ayalon highway, where police were on standby with water cannons. The highway has been a key flashpoint between demonstrators and police in recent weeks.

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 entity, with several figures warning that the worsening strife might lead to its disintegration.  

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. 

Protests have taken place across the occupied territories over the past two months since Netanyahu's controversial move to reform the judiciary.

Protesters say the so-called reform is meant to help Netanyahu avoid repercussions of his ongoing corruption cases, including bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

The political turmoil has coincided with a surge of violence in the occupied West Bank. 

On Thursday, Israeli forces shot dead three young Palestinians during a raid on a town near the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.

The latest killings bring the total number of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces this year to 77, including 13 children and a woman.

Earlier this month, scores of Israeli settlers rampaged through Palestinian towns in the occupied West Bank at night, torching cars and homes and killing a man. 

Austin on Thursday expressed concerns about Jewish settler violence against Palestinians and warned against acts that could trigger more insecurity. 

"We are especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians," the Pentagon chief told a joint news conference at Tel Aviv airport with Galant.

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