Minister compares Palestinians to prisoners in justifying curbs on their movement

Amichai Eliyahu backs Ben Gvir, the head of his far-right Otzma Yehudit party, insists restrictions on West Bank residents are not apartheid

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 8, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on January 8, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu on Sunday compared curtailing Palestinians’ rights to freedom of movement in the West Bank — in order to boost safety for Israeli settlers — to putting dangerous criminals behind bars.

“As soon as someone threatens my rights to live, I slightly reduce his civil rights and enable the law-abiding person to continue to operate,” Elihayu told Ynet.

“In a prison, I take someone and revoke their civil rights so that the rest of society can live in a better way,” he continued. “Is that apartheid?”

Eliyahu, a member of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, asserted, “It is not apartheid even if you shout it a thousand times.”

Last week, his party leader, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, provoked outrage when he said that his family has more of a right to travel on roads in the West Bank than Palestinians do, in the wake of a spate of deadly terror attacks on Israeli settlers in the area. The Biden administration and American Jewish groups denounced his comments, with the US State Department in a rare move calling him out by name. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later in the week countered Ben Gvir’s comments, declaring that Israel strives to allow the greatest possible freedom of movement for both the Israeli and Palestinian populations in the West Bank.

“We need to help the good Israeli Arabs and also the good Israeli Arabs” in the West Bank “to travel freely, and impact their lives as little as possible in order to allow us a normative life,” Eliyahu continued.

Illustrative: Cars travel on a road in the southern West Bank. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“But whoever throws stones, whoever throws Molotov cocktails, whoever lowers our possibility to live, whoever incites against us in the education system or in mosques — we will be forced with great sorrow and great pain to reduce his possibility to move.”

Eliyahu offered no explanation as to how he would differentiate between the two groups of people.

Ben Gvir on Sunday morning before the weekly cabinet meeting told media that his remarks had been distorted by “the extreme left in Israel” to harm him and that what he meant was that “the right to life overcomes the right to freedom of movement.”

On Friday, a senior diplomatic official told the Ynet news site that Ben Gvir’s comments were “a mega-attack on Israel’s public diplomacy that reveals the true face of the government.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir at a police event in Jerusalem, August 17, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The damage is immense,” the unnamed source said, adding that Ben Gvir’s comments had provided Israel’s critics with “golden evidence” to support their claims that Israel is a racist and an apartheid state.

They also noted that neither Netanyahu — at the time the comments were made — nor other senior government ministers, had refuted Ben Gvir’s comments, making it hard to argue that this was not official government policy.

Ben Gvir has long faced accusations of racism due to a history of inflammatory comments toward Arabs and Palestinians and his identification as a disciple of Meir Kahane.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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