WASHINGTON, May 23 (UPI) — As the tension continues in the Middle East, the United States has canceled a regularly scheduled military exercise with Israel, the Israeli government and a Marine Corps general confirmed Wednesday.

The decision to cancel Exercise Noble Shirley, a live-fire training exercise for U.S. and Israeli troops usually held in the southern Negev Desert region of Israel in July and December, was made by U.S. European Command, the Pentagon and the State Department, said Maj. Gen. Robert Magnus, assistant deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations.

“There are political reasons and military-force protection reasons,” Magnus told United Press International on Wednesday after a breakfast meeting with reporters.

The 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit on the USS Kearsarge now in the Mediterranean Sea was supposed to take part in the training exercise, which often practices long-range helicopter raids and mobile assault.

Magnus said the decision to cancel the exercise was made Tuesday.

As Israel and the Palestinians continue to trade bombings and mortar attacks, Israel is considered to pose a higher-than-normal risk of terrorist attack, a Pentagon source said. Eight months after the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, the military is loath to tempt new attackers.

The political reasons for canceling the exercise are unclear, but one government official suggested the United States may not want to be seen practicing with the Israeli military while it is using “disproportionate military force” — including helicopter attacks — to respond to Palestinian provocations.

Magnus indicated Wednesday that the U.S. military does not endorse Israel’s tactics against Palestinian populated areas.

“We don’t consider that to be the way we would prefer to do things,” Magnus said.

Israel has used U.S.-made weaponry, including F-16s, against Palestinian targets. The Pentagon refused comment on the matter Tuesday, deferring to the State Department.

Secretary of State Colin Powell would not specify whether the United States had asked Israel not to use U.S.-made weapons in its operations against the Palestinians.

“We’re asking both sides to not take this up to any higher levels of escalation and let’s start moving things down,” said Powell at a news conference Monday.

Powell called for an “unconditional cessation” of violence by both sides, and endorsed a recently released international report that urges Israel to use non-lethal means for counteracting Palestinian demonstrations and calls for a freeze on building Israeli settlements. He also appointed a new envoy to the Middle East to coordinate with the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, and Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Officially, the Pentagon refuses to comment on the cancellation as it had not yet announced that the exercise was going to take place.

“We’ve made no announcement of an exercise,” said Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. Craig Quigley on Tuesday. “I’m not going to get into what we may have done if we didn’t announce it in the first place. I’m not going to go there.”

An Israeli government source confirmed Wednesday that Noble Shirley had been canceled and said it was solely an American decision.

“It’s true the cancellation is an American initiative — it was their decision to defer,” said an Israeli Embassy spokesman in Washington.

This article ran on the UPI wire on May 23, 2001

Copyright 2001 by United Press International.
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