TEL AVIV, March 10 (Aljazeera) - US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has urged Israeli leaders to take steps to reduce tensions in the occupied West Bank amid surging violence.

Austin, who is on a regional tour, landed at Ben Gurion International Airport on Thursday for a visit that had been rescheduled due to escalating street protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Hours earlier, Israeli forces killed three Palestinian fighters from the Jaba Brigades, affiliated with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, in a raid in Jenin in the northern West Bank.

“The United States [remains] firmly opposed to any acts that could trigger more insecurity, including settlement expansion and inflammatory rhetoric,” Austin told reporters after his meeting with Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant.

“We’re especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians,” Austin said.

He met Netanyahu earlier at the airport for more than an hour, and a Pentagon readout of the meeting said Austin called for “immediate steps to de-escalate violence and work towards a just and lasting peace”.

Among West Bank flashpoints concerning the United States is the village of Huwara, where the February 26 killing by a Palestinian gunman of two Israelis from a nearby settlement sparked a deadly rampage by settlers.

One Palestinian was killed and dozens of houses were torched in the violence, triggering worldwide outrage and condemnation that increased when ultra-nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who has responsibility for aspects of the West Bank administration, said Huwara should be “erased”. Smotrich later offered a partial retraction.

There has been no sign of any let-up in the violence ahead of the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover festival.

Since the beginning of the year, Israeli forces have killed more than 70 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians. In the same period, Palestinians have killed 13 Israelis and one Ukrainian woman in apparently uncoordinated attacks.