Smotrich calls for Palestinian-free buffer zones around West Bank settlements

Finance minister says olive harvest must cease in designated areas to reduce friction, blames rising settler violence on ‘left-wing anarchist activists’

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends a press conference in Jerusalem on October 19, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends a press conference in Jerusalem on October 19, 2023. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for a ban on Palestinians harvesting olives close to Israeli West Bank settlements on Monday, and advocated for the creation of “sterile” no-go areas prohibiting the presence of Palestinians in the vicinity of the settlements and major roads that lead to them.

In a letter sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and shared with the media, the far-right cabinet member, who is also a second minister in the Defense Ministry, alleged that Israel is failing to maintain acceptable levels of security for its citizens in the West Bank.

“For months I cried out in the cabinet and was answered with disdain and silence. We all pay the price today. No more,” Smotrich said, drawing a comparison between the spiraling situation in the West Bank and Hamas’s October 7 massacre, during which some 3,000 terrorists stormed into Israel via land, air and sea, killing 1,400 people in southern Israel and taking at least 240 hostages.

“I will not allow additional blood to be spilled on my watch and on my conscience… [by] not internalizing the lessons of the Simhat Torah [October 7] events for Judea and Samaria [the West Bank] as well,” he said of his demand for Palestinian-free buffer zones.

Israel must “create sterile security areas around [Jewish] communities and roads and prevent Arabs from entering them, including for the purpose of olive harvesting.”

Smotrich argued that such measures are necessary to prevent terror attacks against settlers as well as “to provide a sense of security due to the high sensitivity and the drafting of many men into reserve duty, leaving women and children alone.”

He also asserted that the security zones would prevent “friction that could lead to a flareup in the region and cause us great international damage.”

Despite this claim, actions that hamper Palestinian farmers from harvesting their olives would likely face intense international criticism and could further inflame tensions in the West Bank.

In the letter, Smotrich asserted that he had raised the possibility of Palestinian-free zones with Netanyahu several times in the last few weeks and that the prime minister had instructed IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi to look into it. Despite this, he said, no change in policy has been implemented or examined.

“This is madness that I am not willing to put up with anymore,” he wrote.

The proposed ban on olive harvesting near Israeli settlements would also serve to accomplish “the removal of left-wing [Israeli] anarchist activists who set the area on fire,” he wrote.

Israeli soldiers restrain Jewish settlers after they stormed the Palestinian West Bank village of Dayr Sharaf following a terror attack in which an Israeli driver was shot dead, November 2, 2023. (Jaafar ASHTIYEH/AFP)

According to Israel’s Yesh Din rights group, there had been over 172 incidents of settler violence and harassment against West Bank Palestinians in at least 84 Palestinian towns and communities since Hamas’s savage and murderous assault on Israel on October 7, which sparked a war with the terror group.

An off-duty IDF soldier was arrested by military police last week on suspicion of shooting dead Palestinian man Bilal Muhammed Saleh, who had reportedly been harvesting olives near the northern West Bank village of As-Sawiya on October 28. There have been no reports of other arrests.

In a cabinet meeting last week, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir dismissed concerns raised by Shin Bet head Ronen Bar about the settler attacks, reportedly asking why so much attention needed to be given to the “graffiti” Israeli youth are daubing on Palestinian property.

Contacted by The Times of Israel, Smotrich’s spokesman clarified that the minister meant to refer to Palestinians and not all Arabs in his letter.

Smotrich has faced accusations of anti-Arab racism in the past.

In March 2023, he came under fire after suggesting that Israel should wipe out the Palestinian town of Huwara in the West Bank after a terrorist from the town shot and killed two Israeli brothers.

The attack was followed by extremist settlers rampaging through the Nablus-area town and setting homes and cars on fire, resulting in one Palestinian shot dead and several badly hurt.

Instead of condemning the settler attack, Smotrich told a journalist at a financial conference that “the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it.”

His push for Arab-free zones in the West Bank on Monday comes after he sought to freeze Palestinian Authority funding in response to what he said was support for Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught.

The funds are part of customs duties Israel collects on behalf of the PA. Israel has made such deductions in the past, following 2018 legislation that cites the PA’s payment of stipends to terrorists and their families. But it only partially upholds the policy, as officials are keenly aware that the PA is dangerously close to financial collapse.

Rejecting US calls for him to release the funds, Smotrich said, “I hear that there are those who think that while our heroic soldiers and commanders are sacrificing their lives for the defense of the homeland, we should transfer money to this despicable enemy in Judea and Samaria.”

His stance was widely criticized by his fellow cabinet ministers, who called it unjustified and warned of the long-term damage such a move could pose.

Ultimately, following a vote in the government on Thursday, it was agreed that the tax revenues would be allowed to reach the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, but that funding earmarked for Gaza, where the Palestinian Authority helps pay public sector salaries, would be withheld.

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