ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 146

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Smotrich doubles down on resettlement of Gazans, rejecting US criticism

2 million Gazans ‘wake up every morning with a desire to slaughter, rape and murder Jews,’ finance minister charges; says 70% of Israelis support ‘voluntary emigration’ from Strip

Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing in Egypt after being evacuated from the Gaza Strip, on December 26, 2023. (AFP)
Palestinians wait at the Rafah border crossing in Egypt after being evacuated from the Gaza Strip, on December 26, 2023. (AFP)

Rejecting the US State Department’s condemnation of calls for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich on Wednesday reiterated his support for encouraging “voluntary emigration” of the Strip’s population to other countries as part of his postwar vision.

The leader of the far-right Religious Zionism party claimed in a statement that “more than 70 percent of the Israeli public today supports” encouraging emigration as “a humanitarian solution,” but did not provide a source for this statistic.

A resettlement policy is necessary, he said, because “a small country like ours cannot afford a reality where four minutes away from our communities there is a hotbed of hatred and terrorism, where two million people wake up every morning with aspiration for the destruction of the State of Israel and with a desire to slaughter and rape and murder Jews wherever they are.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, another senior far-right coalition partner of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, hit back at Washington shortly after it aired its criticism Tuesday.

“The United States is our best friend, but first of all we will do what is best for the State of Israel: the migration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow the residents of the [Gaza] envelope to return home and live in security and will protect the IDF soldiers,” Ben Gvir posted on X. “I really admire the United States of America but with all due respect, we are not another star in the American flag.”

In the relatively rare, unprompted statement, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller labeled the calls by the far-right ministers as “inflammatory and irresponsible.”

The critique underscored growing frustration in Washington with Netanyahu’s government, which the Biden administration has continued to support diplomatically and militarily in the war against Hamas but has increasingly sparred with regarding planning for Gaza once the fighting ends.

File: Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Bezalel Smotrich at the Knesset on December 29, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We have been told repeatedly and consistently by the government of Israel, including by the prime minister, that such statements do not reflect the policy of the Israeli government. They should stop immediately,” Miller said.

While he has issued statements insisting they do not represent government policy, Netanyahu himself gave the go-ahead for government members to support the plan to encourage Palestinians to leave the enclave.

Last Monday, he told a Likud faction meeting that he is working to facilitate the voluntary migration of Gazans to other countries. “Our problem is [finding] countries that are willing to absorb Gazans, and we are working on it,” he said.

The prime minister was responding to Likud MK Danny Danon, who claimed that “the world is already discussing the possibilities of voluntary immigration,” though the idea has been roundly rejected by the international community.

The tiff with the US was touched off by Smotrich, who on Saturday night told Channel 12 in an interview, “We want to encourage voluntary emigration, and we need to find countries willing to take them in.”

His comments were followed by similar remarks by Ben Gvir at a faction meeting on Monday, who went further in expressing support for the revival of Israeli settlements inside Gaza.

“We cannot withdraw from any territory we are in in the Gaza Strip. Not only do I not rule out Jewish settlement there, I believe it is also an important thing,” he said.

The war presents an “opportunity to concentrate on encouraging the migration of the residents of Gaza,” Ben Gvir told reporters and members of his far-right Otzma Yehudit party, calling such a policy “a correct, just, moral and humane solution.”

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller answers questions during a news briefing at the State Department, Washington, July 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Miller’s statement came days after US President Joe Biden reportedly took Netanyahu to task on a phone call for failing to stand up to the hardliners in his coalition, which he said he’s done with the far-left flank of the Democratic party that is urging a ceasefire in Gaza. Biden was taking particular issue with Israel’s decision to withhold tens of millions of dollars in Palestinian tax revenues from the Palestinian Authority. Smotrich reiterated his refusal as finance minister to transfer a single shekel to the PA.

Biden called out Ben Gvir publicly last month, lamenting that “Ben Gvir and company and the new folks don’t want anything remotely approaching a two-state solution.”

As for the US position on Israeli settlements in Gaza, Miller reiterated, “We have been clear, consistent and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land, with Hamas no longer in control of its future and with no terror groups able to threaten Israel.”

That stance appeared to also put the US at odds with mainstream Israeli leaders such as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, who have called for the IDF to establish a security buffer zone in Gaza after the war.

“That is the future we seek in the interests of Israelis and Palestinians, the surrounding region and the world,” Miller added.

The State Department’s criticism was echoed by US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who tweeted, “There should be no mass displacement of Palestinians from Gaza, and we reject the recent inflammatory statements from Israeli Ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir.”

Times of Israel staff, Shalom Yerushalmi and AFP contributed to this report.

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