Contradicting Ben Gvir, Netanyahu says illegal West Bank land grabs ‘unacceptable’

PM declares government will take ‘strong action’ against those who carry out unauthorized settlement activity; lauds ‘changed equation’ of rare drone strike in West Bank

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 25, 2023.(Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, June 25, 2023.(Abir Sultan/Pool Photo via AP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said that calls for West Bank settlers to illegally grab land are unacceptable and ultimately harm the settlement enterprise.

His remarks came after far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visited an illegal outpost last week and urged settlers to “run to the hills” in order to seize more territory, with his support.

“Calls to grab land illegally and actions of grabbing land illegally are unacceptable to me. They undermine law and order in Judea and Samaria and must stop immediately,” Netanyahu said at the outset of the weekly cabinet meeting, using the biblical term for the West Bank. “Not only will we not back such actions, but our government will also take strong action against them.”

“These calls and actions do not strengthen settlement – on the contrary, they hurt it,” Netanyahu said. “These calls hurt the vital interests of the State of Israel and they must stop immediately.”

Speaking days after four Israelis were killed in a Palestinian terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, Netanyahu said that “for years I have been saying that the proper response to terrorism is to fight the terrorists and – at the same time – to deepen our roots in our country.”

“Indeed,” he added, “we have been targeting a record number of terrorists and also building in our country on a broad scale according to approved construction plans. I emphasize – approved.”

In his public remarks, Netanyahu did not mention the five consecutive days of settler rampages in Palestinian towns and villages since the Eli terrorist attack. Following another such attack on Saturday, security chiefs released a joint statement condemning the violence as “nationalist terror in the full sense of the term.” (In a statement on Wednesday, in which he also responded to violent Druze riots on the Golan Heights, Netanyahu declared: “The citizens of Israel are all obligated to respect the law. We will not accept riots either in the Golan Heights or in Judea and Samaria.”)

Ben Gvir responded to Netanyahu’s Sunday comments in a tweet, writing that he greatly respects the prime minister but “a right-wing government must realize its vision, settlement in the… [West Bank]… territories along with zero tolerance toward those who threaten that if we do not accede to their requests there will be war,” adding: “Israel must not fold!”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a deadly shooting attack near the West Bank settlement of Eli, June 20, 2023. (Flash90)

In response to the terror attack last Monday, Netanyahu’s office announced that 1,000 new housing units would be approved in the settlement of Eli.

On Friday, Ben Gvir — who leads the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party — visited the illegal hilltop outpost of Evyatar, which was reoccupied by settlers, also in response to the attack.

“There needs to be a full settlement here. Not just here but on all the hilltops around us,” Ben Gvir said. He also called for a broad military campaign against terror in the West Bank.

“We are behind you,” he exhorted. “Run for the hilltops, settle them.”

Asked about Ben Gvir’s comments, White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing Friday that Washington has been “clear and consistent that we do not support additional settlement activity. Our policy with respect to settlements has not changed and will not change,” he added. “And we have been very consistent in communicating that directly to government officials in Israel.”

US officials expressed concern to The Times of Israel last week that Ben Gvir and other hardliners were steering government policy rather than the more politically pragmatic Netanyahu.

Weapons found in a car struck by an Israeli drone near the northern West Bank city of Jenin, June 21, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Also last week, the IDF for the first time in over 15 years carried out a drone strike in the West Bank against a cell of Palestinian gunmen who attacked security forces.

At the cabinet meeting on Sunday, Netanyahu said the strike marked a new formula for dealing with terror.

He said that in recent bouts of fighting with the Gaza Strip “we changed the equation,” subduing the Hamas terror group in 2021 and and then Palestinian Islamic Jihad earlier this year.

“Last week, we changed the equation again, this time against the terrorists in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said. “The IDF and the security forces used a UAV to target terrorists in Jenin and this a sign of what is to come.”

“We are adopting a vigorous policy that allows the IDF to use all the tools at our disposal to defend the security of the citizens of Israel,” he added.

The Wednesday strike killed all three gunmen who had just opened fire at a checkpoint in the northern West Bank. It marked the first targeted killings in the West Bank since 2006, according to the IDF, and came after attack helicopters were used in a military raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin earlier this week, also for the first time in some two decades.

There have been signs of strain between Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and other coalition parties. According to Channel 12, Ben Gvir was deliberately excluded from a top-level security assessment held after the Eli attack, even though the National Security Ministry includes overseeing police. Among those who attended the Tuesday security consultation with Netanyahu were Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer, and the heads of the IDF and Shin Bet security service.

Two unnamed coalition members also criticized Ben Gvir over his push for a widespread military operation in the West Bank in response to the shooting, the network reported, with one saying he is the “weak link” in the government.

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