Far-right minister Orit Strock likened the leaders of the military and the security establishment to Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group on Monday for saying that extremist settlers who have attacked Palestinians in recent days were engaged in “terrorism.”
“They issued a message about Jewish nationalist terrorism. Who do you think you are? The Wagner Group?” she said, referring to the Russian mercenaries who attempted a coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin at the weekend.
“Who are you to issue such a message under the government’s nose? Are they going to preach to us?” said Strock, who serves as the settlements and national missions minister in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition.
Following a deadly West Bank terror attack last week, groups of settlers have fired weapons, set fire to vehicles and homes, and ripped up books at a mosque during rampages through several Palestinian towns.
The rampages were branded “nationalist terrorism in the full sense of the term” by Israel Defense Forces chief Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai in a joint statement on Saturday.
Strock said Monday in comments to the Kol BaRama Haredi radio station, cited by Hebrew-language media, that while she was against the actions of the rampaging settlers, “it is a shame and disgrace to call these events nationalist terrorism.”
Speaking to the Kan public broadcaster about the events on Saturday, when several dozen settlers rampaged through the West Bank village of Umm Safa firing weapons and setting cars and homes alight, Strock called for restraint on the part of the settlers but also branded Umm Safa a “village of murderers.”
“I think that such things should not be done under any circumstances, and I use this platform to call on anyone who thinks of doing this type of action in the future not to do it. This is not our way at all, to harm people in this way,” Strock said.
“In a normal country, the ones who should act against a village of murderers are the security forces,” she said.
Shortly after her initial comments, Strock apologized for referring to the heads of the army, Shin Bet and police as the Wagner Group.
“However, I do not hold back from the objective criticism that the heads of our security systems, as dedicated and worthy of appreciation as they are, should not be preachers of morality but producers of security,” she said.
After a number of hours and amid a storm of criticism from the opposition, Netanyahu responded to Strock’s comments saying that “there is no place for criticizing the people who lead our fight against terrorism and for the security of Israel.”
However, he also added that he ordered an investigation into “allegations of the use of excessive force by the security forces” against settlers in the West Bank.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant shielded the security leaders, urging anyone who has complaints with policy to address their concerns to him.
“I appeal from here to the members of the public who are attacking the Chief of Staff, the head of the Shin Bet, the police commissioner, the IDF commanders who are in the field…. and I say to you elected officials — the ministers and Knesset members: If you want attack someone — attack me, the minister of defense,” Gallant said in a statement that did not mention Strock by name.
“If any member of the public wants to attack the security forces, they are welcome to attack me, don’t touch the IDF soldiers,” he added.
Gallant also noted he is “very worried” about incidents of settlers physically attacking IDF soldiers who are sent to intervene when they attack Palestinians or their property.
“There are attacks by an extremist population on IDF commanders and soldiers. These attacks are also physical attacks, this thing is dangerous and worrisome,” he said.
“We will not accept harm to the IDF, we will not accept harm to IDF commanders, and anyone who does that we will be brought to justice in the most severe manner,” Gallant warned.
President Isaac Herzog condemned Strock’s remarks, and the settler assaults, at a Monday ceremony honoring outstanding members of the security forces.
“The unrestrained assault on members of our security forces and their commanders, is something we cannot allow to become routine, and we must all strongly condemn it,” Herzog said.
Shortly after making her initial Wagner Group comments, Strock was slammed by opposition politicians.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said that Strock was not worthy of a ministerial position for her attack on the “heroes of Israel.”
“A minister in Israel who compares the army chief of staff, the police commissioner and the head of the Shin Bet to rebel mercenaries is not worthy and cannot sit in the Israeli government,” Lapid tweeted.
“Netanyahu must stop the madness and rein in his delusional irresponsible ministers. The citizens of Israel owe their lives to [IDF chief] Herzi Halevi, [police chief] Kobi Shabtai and [Shin Bet chief] Ronen Bar, the heroes and guardians of Israel,” Lapid said.
National Unity leader Benny Gantz called for Netanyahu to immediately fire Strock for the “moral disgrace” of her comments.
“The comparison of the heads of the security system to the Wagner Group is a moral disgrace and an injury to the security of the state. Netanyahu should fire Orit Strock today. Every minute she serves as a minister in the government is a message of security lawlessness, a nod to anarchists and an attack on the IDF, the Shin Bet and the Israel Police,” Gantz said.
“We must not be satisfied with condemnations. The message must be in actions. The time has come to put an end to the anarchy that the Israeli government is creating in the security of the state,” he said.
Labor party leader MK Merav Michaeli noted that Netanyahu had chosen to appoint Strock as a minister.
“Netanyahu brought Orit Strock, the representative of the hilltop youth who are the perpetrators of settler terrorism, to the government table – no wonder she attacks the heads of the Israeli security establishment,” Michaeli tweeted.
“We are not on the same side. She is on the side of the supporters of terrorism,” Michaeli said.
Strock’s Religious Zionism party head Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said he stands behind her.
“Minister Strock clarified her remarks immediately, she apologized,” Smotrich said at the outset of his weekly Knesset faction meeting. “Everyone makes mistakes.”
Strock was not the only far-right minister in Netanyahu’s hardline government to reject the harsh criticism leveled by the military and the defense establishment against the “terrorism” of extremist settlers.
“The attempt to create an equivalency between murderous Arab terror and [Israeli] civilian counter-actions, however serious they may be, is morally wrong and dangerous on a practical level,” Smotrich wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who on Friday urged Jewish settlers to “head for the hilltops” to establish and expand illegal outposts in response to Palestinian terror, said law enforcement should enforce policies equally between communities and not “pick and choose” where to apply the law.
The far-right minister said it was unacceptable that administrative detentions, for example, should “be used only against settlers, and not against [criminals] in Arab society.”
Hours after the June 20 terror attack near Eli in which four Israelis were killed, an unknown number of settler vigilantes rampaged through several Palestinian towns in the northern West Bank, including Huwara, the scene of another deadly settler riot earlier this year after a terror attack that killed two Israeli brothers.
Shortly after the victims of the Eli attack were buried the next day, hundreds of settlers also tore through the Palestinian towns of Turmus Ayya and Urif, shooting at residents, setting homes, cars and fields on fire and terrorizing residents. One Palestinian, 27-year-old Omar Qattin, was killed in unclear circumstances in Turmus Ayya. There were further settler rampages on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.