Furor erupted after comments by a senior Israeli minister with responsibility for administrating the West Bank.
By Erin Viner
“There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, adding, “Is there a Palestinian history or culture? There is none.”
The rightwing Minister was recorded making the remarks at a memorial in Paris for late Likud activist Jacques Kupfer, in footage widely circulated on social media.
“This truth should be heard at the Élysée Palace and the White House,” he went on to say, adding that, “The argument that there is no Palestinian people should also be heard among Arabs in Israel and among ‘confused Jews,’” the latter an apparent jab at leftist voters.
There has long been debate as to whom the name “Palestinians” should refer.
The word for people of the region in Biblical Hebrew is translated as “Philistines,” while the Emperor Hadrian in the second century officially renamed the province “Syria Palaestina” in an attempt disassociate the Jewish People from their historical homeland in punishment for the Bar Kokhba rebellion.
While all people were deemed as “Palestinians” during the British Mandate, the term was used almost exclusively for Jews, while Arabs were called just that. In fact, birth certificates and all official documentation registered Jewish residents officially as Palestinians during that era. Evolution by Arabs to use of the name “Palestinians” came during a campaign for their own state of Israel’s re-founding in 1948.
Hence, Minister Smotrich claimed that Arabs who call themselves the Palestinian people are “an invention” from less than a century ago.
“Do you know who the Palestinians are? I am Palestinian. My late grandmother, who was born in (the northern Israeli town of) Metulla more than a century ago to a family of pioneers who established all the settlements in the north, is Palestinian. My late grandfather, who was 13th generation Jerusalemite, is the true Palestinian,” he explained.
Smotrich’ visit abroad had already been enveloped in controversy after he called for the flashpoint West Bank town of Huwara to be “erased” following the 26 February murders of Israeli brothers Hillel and Yagel Yaniv who were shot to death at point-blank range by Palestinian terrorists as they drove through on a nearby highway. An Israeli-American couple came under fire by terrorists in the same town this past Sunday, 19 March.
The Jewish National Fund, an Israeli NGO, had initially sponsored the Finance Minister’s appearance in Paris but withdrew its support in wake of the comments, while the French Foreign Ministry announced there would be no meetings with the Israeli Minister.
United States officials also declined to attend an Israel Bonds event in Washington, D.C. last week due to Smotrich’ presence. Remarking during his address that he wanted to “say a few words about the elephant in the room,” Smotrich told those gathered that to “repeat now with sincere regret, my comments about Hawara created a completely mistaken impression.”
Condemnation over Smotrich’ comments in Paris was heightened due to the fact they were delivered as he stood at a podium bearing the logo of the “Greater Land of Israel” depicting Mandatory Palestine and Trans-Jordan – including Judea, Samaria, Gaza and Jordan. A spokesperson for Smotrich said the flag was a set decoration chosen by the conference organizers and that the minister was a guest.
“Bezalel Smotrich’ statement that the Palestinian people do not exist and that they were created in the last century is conclusive evidence that the Israeli government is dominated by extreme Zionism,” declared Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, saying the comments amounted to incitement to violence.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry issued a statement alleging that by denial of the existence of the Palestinian people and their legitimate national rights in their homeland, Israeli leaders “foster an environment that fuels Jewish extremism and terrorism against our people.”
UN Secretary-General Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq, a US citizen of Pakistani origin, described Smotrich’s remarks as “completely unhelpful,” telling reporters in New York, “obviously, there very clearly and distinctly is a Palestinian people. Their rights are upheld by the United Nations.”
Western allies also criticized the remarks.
“We utterly object to that kind of language,” said US National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby. “We don’t want to see any rhetoric, any action or rhetoric … that can stand in the way or become and obstacle to a viable Two-State Solution, and language like that does,” he added.
High Representative of the European Union Josep Borrell told reporters in Brussels he “deplored these unacceptable comments by Minister Smotrich,” branding them as “wrong,” “disrespectful,”
dangerous” and “counter-productive.” The EU Foreign Policy Chief then called on the Israeli government “to disavow those comments and to start working together with all parties to defuse tensions.”
The French Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling “on those serving in senior positions in the Israeli government to provide an example for treating others with respect and to avoid any action or statement that could lead to escalations.”
Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, rejected his remarks as well.
Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994, expressed utter outrage over the incident.
“It’s an irresponsible provocative behavior by an incumbent minister and a break of international norms and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. This extremist behavior pushes towards escalation,” said Sinan al Majali, Spokesperson for the Jordan’s Foreign Ministry.
Jordan called on the Israeli government to take a “clear and frank” stance, Majali said.
Earlier, Amman condemned Smotrich as an “extremist” and “racist” minister.
Jerusalem’s Foreign Ministry immediately posted a response on Twitter reaffirming that, “Israel is committed to the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan. There has been no change in the position of the State of Israel, which recognizes the territorial integrity of the Hashemite Kingdom.”
Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi also announced via Twitter, “After the storm caused by the publishing of a picture of Israel’s Minister of Finance next to a map of the Land of Israel which included the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, I spoke this evening with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi. Additionally, I relayed to FM Safadi the important contributions made by King Abdullah in ensuring the successes of both the meetings in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh,” he added referring to two recent regional summits aimed at de-escalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.”
Despite Jerusalem’s attempts to assuage Amman’s anger, today the Hashemite Kingdom’s parliament voted to approve a recommendation that the Israeli Ambassador be expelled. The matter will ultimately be determined by the country’s ruler King Abdullah II.