‘A dangerous slope’: Gantz says Smotrich seeking West Bank chaos

National Unity party chief says government’s far-right parties attempting to prevent two-state solution by stoking conflict, blames Netanyahu for fostering volatile situation

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
National Unity party leader Benny Gantz speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset on February 20, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

National Union party leader Benny Gantz, a key figure in the opposition, said Tuesday that far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and others in the government are supportive of the chaos in the West Bank, and predicted the spiraling violence will lead to ruin.

“Smotrich wants to cause another Palestinian Nakba, that the people there will go who knows where,” Gantz told Army Radio, referring to the Palestinians’ term for Israel’s creation, and their displacement during Israel’s War of Independence. “We Israelis are not going anywhere, and the Palestinians are not going anywhere.”

“From his perspective, an escalation is a good thing, putting settlements in the most crowded parts of Judea and Samaria is a good thing, dismantling the Palestinian Authority is a good thing,” Gantz said of Smotrich, referring to the West Bank by its biblical names.

Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry, and other right-wing lawmakers are staunch supporters of the settlement movement. Far-right Smotrich has used his position to try to prevent evictions from illegal settlements.

Gantz said a settler rampage through the Palestinian town of Huwara on Sunday was a risk to Israel, and blasted support for the settlers from some members of the government, calling the rioters “militia with backing from some coalition figures.” The Huwara riot came after a terrorist murdered two Israelis in the town.

“It’s not proper, it doesn’t represent our values, it’s not right for our strategy, it’s not right legally,” Gantz said of the deadly rampage. “I’m really disturbed by the backing this has received from some of the people in politics, who instead of calming things down, went out there with torches in a place full of gas fumes.”

“That is not how responsible leadership acts,” he said. “That’s not how an advanced country acts, that’s not how a law-abiding country acts.”

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich at a converence in Jerusalem, February 21, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After the riot, MK Zvika Fogel of the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party — the chairman of the Knesset’s National Security Committee — was unequivocal in his backing for the rioters and his denunciation of the government his party leader Itamar Ben Gvir is a member of.

“A closed, burnt 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,” Fogel said.

Another member of Otzma Yehudit, MK Limor Son Har-Melech, went to Huwara on the night of the riot to “support the righteous cries of hundreds of residents.”

She called for “the eradication of terror incidents until the very last one of them.”

Smotrich offered a muted response to the riot and National Security Minister Ben Gvir did not issue any statement.

Gantz said Smotrich and other far-right lawmakers were deliberately trying to prevent a two-state solution.

“I think the direction he’s pulling us endangers our Zionist character,” Gantz said, blaming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the situation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Likud faction meeting in the Knesset, February 6, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“There’s one person who disturbs me more than anyone else — Netanyahu. He’s at the head of this system,” Gantz said. “He sent them out there, he’s giving them backing, he’s responsible for this deterioration.”

“The problem isn’t Smotrich, and it’s not Ben Gvir and it’s not Fogel. The problem is Netanyahu. He’s letting the system fall apart,” Gantz said. “This is all Netanyahu’s responsibility and not his emissaries.”

“This is a very dangerous slope, one that cannot be allowed to stand,” Gantz told Radio 103 in a separate interview. “You don’t do things like this. We only have one army. Setting the ground on fire doesn’t seem to me the safest way to go.”

Gantz is a former IDF chief of staff and served as defense minister in the previous government. He met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as defense minister to foster security ties, prompting harsh criticism from Netanyahu and his political allies.

After the Huwara riot, Smotrich did not condemn the rampage, expressed understanding for the “great pain” caused by the deadly terror attack that morning, called on the mob “not to take the law into your own hands,” and promised that the government would send “a real response to the terror, both military and settlement.”

Smotrich had also “liked” a tweet by Samaria Regional Council deputy mayor Davidi Ben Zion that called “to erase the village of Huwara today.”

A Palestinian man walks between scorched cars in a scrapyard after a settler riot, in the town of Huwara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, February 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

Smotrich, the head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, has tried to use his role as a minister within the Defense Ministry to stop the Civil Administration from carrying out settler evacuation orders, though he has run into opposition from Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The day after the riot, Netanyahu said, “With all the fervor and the passion, there is no place for anarchy, we will not accept anarchy.”

“We will not accept a reality where people… set homes on fire, burn cars, intentionally harm innocent people. This is exactly what our enemies want to see: a loss of control and a never-ending cycle of blood, fire and smoke,” Netanyahu said. He did not name the town of Huwara directly, nor lay blame for the violent rampage on any specific group of people.

Netanyahu and parts of his Likud party have been in conflict with some of the coalition’s far-right and religious elements since the government took power in December.

This picture taken on February 27, 2023 shows an aerial view of a scrapyard where cars were torched overnight, in the Palestinian town of Huwara near Nablus in the West Bank (RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP)

During the Huwara riot, hundreds of people ran riot through the community and other nearby towns, leaving one Palestinian dead and several others badly injured, as well as torching homes and cars, and killing sheep. Two days later, no one is still held over the unprecedented rampage.

Extremist settlers have also clashed with IDF forces in the area.

The day after the riot, there were a series of shootings against Israelis on West Bank roads, including an attack that killed Israeli-American Elan Ganeles while he was driving near Jericho. The IDF is still searching for the perpetrators.

A report Tuesday night said incidents of settler violence have doubled in quantity since the new government took office in late December, and that the Shin Bet security service was warning settler leaders and rabbis against further violence and lawlessness in an attempt to prevent the situation from further spiraling out of control.

According to Channel 12, the last two months have seen 190 incidents classified as nationalistically motivated Jewish violence, twice as much as in the equivalent period a year earlier.

The Israeli general in charge of troops in the West Bank, Maj. Gen. Yehuda Fuchs, said Tuesday that the settlers who rampaged Huwara had carried out a “pogrom” and accused them of “spreading terror.”

Fuchs also told Hebrew-language media that he was worried clashes between soldiers and settlers would eventually lead to Israelis being killed.

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