The remarks drew widespread condemnation by Israeli Opposition, as well from the United States.
By Erin Viner
Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich made the inflammatory remarks at a financial conference hosted by The Marker business daily in reference to a series of incidents on 26 February.
Israeli brothers Hillel and Yagel Yaniv died after being shot at point-blank range by Palestinian terrorists as they drove through the flashpoint West Bank town of Huwara, north of Ramallah. Their deaths came amid a surge of terror that has claimed the lives of 14 people in Israel since the start of the year.
Later the same evening, hundreds of Jewish extremists went on a rampage in Huwara and neighboring Arab villages chanting, “Revenge.” IDF and Border Police forces were deployed to disperse the rioters, who had set fire to dozens of vehicles, commercial and private properties. One Palestinian in the town of Za’tara, south of Huwara died of gunshot wounds, but the IDF said troops were not involved in the shooting.
Far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich, one of the most senior members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition and leader of the Religious Zionism political party, clicked “Like” on a Tweet posted by Samaria Regional Council Deputy Mayor Davidi Ben Zion. “Here in Huwara, the blood of our children has been spilled on the street. These were Samaria residents who were killed here less than an hour ago. The town of Huwara has to be erased today,” Ben-Zion wrote alongside a photo of the Yaniv’s bullet-riddled car.
When asked at the conference why he did so, Minister Smotrich replied, “Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out,” adding, “I think that the State of Israel needs to do it, but God forbid not individual people.”
In addition to holding the Finance portfolio, Smotrich is also a Minister at the Defense Ministry in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank districts of Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley.
About 7,000 Arabs live in the West Bank town, which has long been a hotbed of violent anti-Israeli activity.
In a later statement, Smotrich insisted the media had misinterpreted his comments – which he did not retract. “I spoke about how Huwara is a hostile village that has become a terrorist outpost,” he said, adding “I support a disproportionate response by the (Israeli military) and the security forces to every act of terrorism,” including the “deportation of the families of the terrorists.”
IDF Central Command Head (General Officer Commanding the Army (GOC) Major General Yehuda Fox has described the settler rampage in Huwara as a “pogrom,” a word believed to have been derived from Yiddish for the massacres of Jewish communities first documented in the year 38 AD but primarily during 19th- and 20th-Century attacks in the Russian Empire by Cossacks, police and often their neighbors.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid branded Smotrich’s call as “incitement to war crimes.” He added, “Jews don’t carry out pogroms and Jews don’t wipe out villages. The government has gone off the rails.”
Prime Minister Netanyahu made no reference to Smotrich in a televised address last night, in which he compared yesterday’s nationwide protest against his government’s judiciary reform plan to the settlers who attacked Huwara. “Freedom to protest is not a license to drive the country to anarchy,” he said, adding, “We won’t accept violence in Huwara and we won’t accept violence in Tel Aviv.”
National Unity faction leader, former Israeli Defense Minister and ex-IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz demanded Netanyahu apologize for equating demonstrators with those who attacked Huwara. “Netanyahu, instead of obfuscating and lying – apologize to the demonstrators, retract the criminal comparison that gives terror a boost,” he wrote on Twitter.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Gantz also condemned the coalition’s complicated new delineation of powers between Smotrich and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. “This doesn’t look like a chain of command, This looks like a labyrinth that endangers Israel’s security,” Gantz tweeted.
The United States called for Prime Minister Netanyahu to publicly disavow his minister’s comments, which were branded as tantamount to incitement to violence.
At a press briefing, United States State Department Spokesperson Ned Price called Smotrich’s statements “irresponsible,” “repugnant” and “disgusting.” He went on to say that “just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence.”
Six more Israelis were detained by police yesterday on suspicion of involvement in the Huwara attack, one of whom was released by the afternoon. Eight others were detained on the night of the rioting have also been released, although three are confined to house arrest.
Another Israeli politician is also being investigated by police over similar inflammatory comments. Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara and State Prosecutor Amit Aisman have approved the launching of a police investigation into Knesset Member Zvika Fogel to the the Galei Israel Radio channel earlier this week.
The head of the Knesset’s National Security Committee and member of the Otzma Yehudit faction – that is part of the ruling coalition – said, “A closed, burned Huwara — that’s what I want to see. That’s the only way to achieve deterrence. After a murder like yesterday’s, we need burning villages when the IDF doesn’t act.”
MK Fogel has also since attempted to walk back his statements by claiming that they were “distorted,” although he failed to say how.