US officials won't attend DC confab alongside Smotrich

Smotrich says he didn’t realize his ‘wipe out’ Huwara call would be seen as IDF order

Apologizing a week after scandal-sparking remark, far-right minister says he must do soul-searching because pilots understood words as directive to obliterate entire town

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a Religious Zionism faction meeting in the Givat Harel settlement in the West Bank, February 14, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a Religious Zionism faction meeting in the Givat Harel settlement in the West Bank, February 14, 2023. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich apologized Wednesday for calling for a Palestinian village to be “wiped out” by the State of Israel, claiming he didn’t realize that the remarks, which sparked a severe protest by dozens of Israeli Air Force pilots, would be interpreted as a military order.

Since making the incendiary declaration a week ago, Smotrich has several times sought to walk it back, though Wednesday’s statement, in a lengthy Facebook post, went further than his previous clarifications and included an apology to the Israel Defense Forces along with a recognition that “soul-searching” was required on his part.

The minister’s remarks on Huwara — where two Israeli brothers were shot dead in a terror attack last week, followed by a deadly rampage by hundreds of settlers several hours later — sparked international headlines and led the Biden administration to weigh refusing him the entry visa that he will need in order to attend an Israel Bonds conference in Washington on Sunday.

The scandal began a week ago when he was asked why he had “liked” a tweet by Samaria Regional Council deputy mayor Davidi Ben Zion that called “to wipe out the village of Huwara today.”

“Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich replied, adding that “God forbid” the job be done by private citizens.

Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, also serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of the body that authorizes settlement construction and the demolition of Palestinian homes in much of the West Bank. That area of authority includes large parts of Huwara, in the northern West Bank, where some 7,000 Palestinians live.

Settlers pray as cars and homes burn in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 26, 2023. (Screenshot/Twitter; used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

As condemnations began to pour in, Smotrich issued a statement claiming the media was trying to “create a distorted interpretation” of his remarks. He said Huwara was a “hostile village” where residents throw rocks and shoot at Israelis and that he supports a “disproportionate response” by the IDF in order to establish deterrence. He later clarified that he didn’t mean to say that the entire village should be wiped out, rather that the military should act in a “targeted manner” against the terrorists in the village.

But the pushback continued, and as of Wednesday, the US had not issued Smotrich a visa to enter the country. The White House said last week that no US government officials would meet with the finance minister when he was in town, and The Forward reported Wednesday that US officials had even rejected invitations to attend the Israel Bonds conference after the group refused to blackball Smotrich over his remarks. However, a spokesperson for Israel Bonds told The Times of Israel though that the invitations to US officials were issued months ago and that the administration’s decision not to send any representatives was made well before Smotrich’s Huwara comments.

While officials familiar with the matter confirmed discussions that the administration has had regarding whether or not to grant Smotrich a visa, they indicated that the minister would ultimately be allowed into the country.

In his Facebook post Wednesday, Smotrich wrote that a friend who serves as a senior officer in the IAF reserves reached out to him to explain that his call had been understood by some of his comrades as a call to wipe out Huwara and its inhabitants from the air. The friend said that such a declaration by a senior minister, coupled with the pilots’ concern over the government’s effort to pass a judicial overhaul package that would grant it unchecked power, led them to believe Smotrich’s words could one day become “an obviously illegal order to the air force, which they, of course, were not prepared to carry out.”

Smotrich said his friend — “who I trust 100 percent” — explained to him that this interpretation of the Huwara remark led dozens of pilots to join the protests against the government’s judicial overhaul efforts and threaten not to report for reserve duty.

At first, Smotrich said he couldn’t understand how the pilots could reach such a conclusion and was dismissive, equating their concern with the storm “created by left-wing elements in Israeli media” who have long carried on  a “false and biased campaign” against him and the current government. He said some of those pushing back against his comments are part of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, indicating that this was another reason that he had been initially dismissive of the pilots’ concerns.

Israeli security forces secure the scene of a shooting attack in Huwara, in the West Bank, near Nablus, February 26, 2023. (Nasser Ishtayeh/Flash90)

Smotrich wrote that he had assumed that only someone “unhinged” could have understood his call for the state to wipe out Huwara to mean that he supported the “indiscriminate killing of women and children.”

But when his words were interpreted in that way by “good, smart, serious and dedicated people who devote the best years of their lives to Israel’s security [in the IAF] and when I hear that such serious people attribute such terrible intentions to me, I can no longer console myself by blaming others. I am forced to engage in some soul-searching,” Smotrich wrote.

He insisted that the thought of indiscriminately eradicating the entire town never crossed his mind, claiming he figured the most extreme interpretation of his words would be to claim he called for demolishing every Palestinian home alongside Huwara’s main highway in order to prevent future attacks, like the shooting that took the lives of the two Israeli brothers last week. In such cases, “there’s no harm to human life, only to property,” he said, ostensibly justifying such a proposal.

Still, he recognized that such a move might also be seen “as excessive and disproportionate” and believed that was what led to the war crimes accusations that were lobbed against him in addition to the campaign against allowing him entry into the US. He claimed he did not initially realize these steps stemmed from the understanding that he had called to wipe out innocent civilians in Huwara.

It was at that point, Smotrich said, that it dawned on him that IAF fighter pilots live in a world in which they are constantly grappling with the morality of their actions and wondering whether their missions justify the collateral damage that might ensue.

Having not served in combat himself, the finance minister acknowledged that he only “knows of this tension on a theoretical level.”

A Palestinian man walks by scorched cars, including some that been taken off the road for spare parts, in the town of Huwara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, February 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

One of Smotrich’s main takeaways from the episode was the degree to which the various segments of Israeli society are unfamiliar with one another, he said, attributing the protesting pilots’ understanding of his Huwara comments to that “huge gap.”

“I know myself, the house I grew up in, the values I bring with me from that home, from that environment I grew up in, from the Torah I studied. I know how much light and goodness and justice and morality and love of man and people there is from all of this, and I don’t recognize the benighted figure that often stares back at me in the media mirror. I can blame it on the media until tomorrow, but it doesn’t change the result,” he said, suggesting that he also had a responsibility to better explain his background and what he stands for.

“And if there is a huge gap between who I am and how I am perceived ‘on the other side,’ which led to me being accused of calling for the murder of women and children, who knows what gap there is between how I often perceive other people or the statements of parties on the other side and who and what they really are?! Could it be that I’ve made the same mistake?” Smotrich wrote.

“We don’t talk enough, we don’t listen enough, and we don’t learn enough from each other,” he said, arguing that this has best been demonstrated in the debate over the government’s effort to radically overhaul the judiciary.

Religious Zionism party chief Betzalel Smotrich and party members in Efrat in the West Bank, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

“To the extent that I… could not at all imagine that my words could be understood to mean that Huwara should be wiped out with all of its inhabitants, I must take into account how my statements can be received by people like our heroic pilots who do not know me and for whom these concepts are not something theoretical, who don’t see them as just words meant to convey a demand for a sharp response but as something taken from the real world, something that is part of their lives, something they deal with day by day, hour by hour.

“So after I failed in this responsibility — and believe me, I am still shaken by the thought that this is how I could have been understood — it is important for me to first apologize to the IDF and its commanders, particularly to those in the Air Force, if I played a role in the breakdown of trust that is so important between the IDF, as the people’s army, and the elected political echelon,” Smotrich continued.

“An obviously illegal order for indiscriminate killing will never happen! Under no circumstances! These are the values we all share,” he said, recommitting himself to the IDF’s moral framework. “These are the necessary values for maintaining the fundamental contract between the state and those who are willing to give their lives for it and use the most lethal weapons to protect it.

“I have stood, and with G-d’s help I will continue to stand, for my side of the social contract!” Smotrich wrote.

Responding to the post, National Unity MK and former IAF officer Matan Kahana said Smotrich accurately described the dilemma faced by air force pilots.

“The minister’s words are an extension of a hand in order rebuild trust,” Kahane tweeted. “Using this kind of discourse, we’ll be able to find a solution to any internal crisis and defeat any external enemy.”

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