Thursday, May 23, 2024

U.S. Restricts Travel for Diplomats in Israel

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The U.S. Embassy in Israel has issued a new security alert that restricts its government employees and their family members from personal travel outside three cities amid heightened tensions in the region. 

The alert restricted personal travel outside the greater Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Be’er Sheva areas until further notice “out of an abundance of caution.”

The embassy said it may also further prohibit travel to certain areas of Israel, including the Old City of Jerusalem, and the West Bank, “in response to security incidents and without advance notice.” 

“The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem reminds U.S. citizens of the continued need for caution and increased personal security awareness as security incidents often take place without warning,” the security alert published Thursday read. “The security environment remains complex and can change quickly depending on the political situation and recent events.”

The security warning comes after an Israeli airstrike hit an Iranian embassy building in Damascus, Syria on April 1, killing at least seven Iranian officials and ratcheting up fears of a regional war. The Israeli government hasn’t publicly acknowledged the strike.

Iran has vowed to retaliate against Israel and hold the country’s ally, the U.S., answerable. (American officials said Israel did not notify them about the strike and the U.S. was not involved.)

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that Israel “must be punished and it shall be,” Reuters reported. Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian previously said in a statement that “The U.S. should be held accountable.”

In turn, Israeli leaders have pledged to respond: “If Iran attacks from its own territory, Israel will respond and attack in Iran,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz posted on X in an English translation.

Read More: Column: Israel’s Dangerous Game With Iran

The tense situation has left U.S. officials scrambling to contain the fallout amid fears that Iran could strike U.S. targets in response. U.S. Gen. Erik Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, traveled to Israel on Thursday to address the threats. President Joe Biden said this week that support for Israel against the threat of a “significant attack” from Iran is “ironclad.”

When asked during a news conference Thursday whether the new Israel travel alert was linked to the threat from Iran, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said: “We have seen Iran making public threats against Israel in the past few days.”

“Israel’s in a very tough neighborhood, and we have been monitoring the security situation. You saw us slightly adjust our travel warnings at the beginning of this conflict, and we conduct ongoing assessments all the time about the situation on the ground,” he added. 

Miller said he wouldn’t speak to the specific assessments that prompted restricting personal travel, but said the decision was made as a result of monitoring the threat environment in the Middle East, and was made public to ensure U.S. citizens living or traveling in Israel were also aware.   

Read More: U.S. Scrambles to Contain Fallout from Israel’s Strikes on Iranians and Aid Workers

Miller said that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his counterparts in Turkey, China, and Saudi Arabia over the past 24 hours “to make clear that escalation is not in anyone’s interest, and that countries should urge Iran not to escalate.” (The U.S. and Iran have had no diplomatic relations since 1980.)

Amir-Abdollahian said in a post on X that “Iran is not seeking escalation of hostility,” but added he had told the foreign ministers of Germany, the U.K., and Australia in separate calls to condemn Israel’s attack on the embassy building in Damascus. Amir-Abdollahian said that the return to “sustainable security” was tied to “controlling” Israel and ending its war in Gaza.

The strike in Syria this month was the latest in a series of tense incidents between the region’s major players and their allies following Hamas’ attack on Israel in October and the ensuing war that has devastated Gaza. Those include increased violence along the Israel-Lebanon border between Israel’s military and Hezbollah militants, Red Sea attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels that prompted retaliatory airstrikes from the U.S. and U.K., and a drone strike that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan, triggering a U.S. air assault in response against militias.

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