'A mega-attack on Israel's public diplomacy'

Unrepentant Ben Gvir spars with Bella Hadid over Jewish vs. Arab rights claim

Minister invites ‘Israel hater’ supermodel to West Bank settlement home to see how ‘Jews are being murdered;’ Israeli officials: far-right minister causing huge diplomatic damage

Composite picture shows Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir (L) in the Knesset on June 14, 2023 and US model Bella Hadid presents a creation for Givenchy during the Spring-Summer 2023 fashion show as part of the Paris Womenswear Fashion Week, in Paris, on October 2, 2022.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90;Julien De Rosa/AFP)
Composite picture shows Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir (L) in the Knesset on June 14, 2023 and US model Bella Hadid presents a creation for Givenchy during the Spring-Summer 2023 fashion show as part of the Paris Womenswear Fashion Week, in Paris, on October 2, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90;Julien De Rosa/AFP)

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir took on model and activist Bella Hadid on Friday as he doubled down on his comments that Jews’ right to travel and live safely in the West Bank are more important than Arabs’ freedom of movement.

Ben Gvir took to X, formerly known as Twitter, to single out the supermodel after she shared a clip of his remarks with her almost 60 million Instagram followers with the caption: “At no place, at no time, especially in 2023 should one life be more valuable than another’s especially simply because of their ethnicity, culture, or pure hatred.”

She also posted a video from leading Israeli rights group B’Tselem showing Israeli soldiers in the southern West Bank city of Hebron telling a resident that Palestinians are not permitted to walk on a certain street because it is reserved for Jews. “Does this remind anyone of anything?” she wrote.

“To the Israel hater Bella Hadid, good morning.” Ben Gvir wrote in a post in Hebrew. “I saw that yesterday you took an excerpt from an interview I gave and put it out to the whole world to try and portray me as racist and backward.”

“I invite you to visit me in Kiryat Arba to see how we live here, how Jews who never did anything bad to anyone else their whole lives are murdered here every day, the threats my wife, children, and myself receive daily from the terrorists who live next door,” he said referring to his home in the West Bank settlement that abuts Hebron.

Earlier this week, Palestinian gunmen opened fire on an Israeli car near Hebron, killing an Israeli woman and seriously wounding the driver. That attack came just days after a Palestinian shooting attack killed an Israeli father and son in the northern Palestinian town of Hawara.

“So yes, it’s my right and the rights of my fellow Jews to travel to and from our homes on the roads of Judea and Samaria in peace, and it is greater than the rights of terrorists who throw stones at us and murder us,” he said. “I don’t apologize or take back my comments. I will repeat them 1,000 times.”

Hadid, who was born in the United States to a Palestinian father, and her sister, Gigi, who are both famous supermodels and Instagram influencers, have been sharply critical of Israel in the past.

On Wednesday, while explaining his support for tightening restrictions on Palestinians amid an ongoing terror wave, Ben Gvir told Channel 12 news “My right, and my wife’s and my children’s rights, to get around on the roads in Judea and Samaria, is more important than the right to movement for Arabs.”

“Sorry Mohammad,” he said to Channel 12 journalist Mohammad Magadli, who argued with him during the interview. “But that’s the reality. That’s the truth. My right to life comes before their right to movement.”

The catchphrase “Sorry, Mohammad” became meme fodder for social media as critics posted it alongside videos of Israeli violence against Palestinians.

His comments have drawn widespread condemnation from inside Israel and abroad.

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

“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.

Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir near the scene where one person died and a few were injured in a rockslide in Ein Gedi nature reserve, near the Dead Sea, on August 24, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

They also noted that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nor other senior government ministers, had publicly refuted Ben Gvir’s comments, making it hard to argue that this was not official government policy.

The Walla news site quoted an unnamed senior government official as saying that “Ben Gvir has managed to do what BDS has not managed to do in years,” referring to the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement.

“He is uncontrollable and acts like a crazy child who was given a toy to amuse him,” the official said. “The problem is that the toy is the State of Israel.”

Ben Gvir’s comments also drew sharp condemnation from the Biden administration.

In a rare comment calling out the Otzma Yehudit party leader by name, a State Department spokesperson on Thursday condemned the remarks as inflammatory and compared them to racist rhetoric dangerously amplified by senior officials.

The US “strongly condemn[s] Minister Ben-Gvir’s inflammatory comments on the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of the West Bank,” the spokesperson told The Times of Israel Thursday night.

While the US has issued statements condemning Ben Gvir in the past — including when he attended a memorial service for the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane shortly before entering government in December and also after he paid a pair of visits this year to Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount as a minister — this appeared to be the first time the State Department called him out by name in its censure.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visits the Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. (Courtesy: Minhelet Har Habayit)

The spokesperson said the State Department “condemn[s] all racist rhetoric,” but stopped short of explicitly calling Ben Gvir’s remarks “racist.”

“Such messages are particularly damaging when amplified by those in leadership positions and are incongruent with advancing respect for human rights for all,” the statement added.

“[US] President [Joe] Biden and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken have been clear that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve to enjoy equal measures of freedom and security,” the spokesperson said.

In addition to the State Department, several US Jewish groups issued statements censuring Ben Gvir.

The centrist Democratic Majority for Israel said it has long warned that Ben Gvir should have no place in the Knesset or in Israel’s government.

“His latest racist statement is the most recent evidence that Ben Gvir should not be part of Israel’s government or parliament. Israel will be stronger without him in a position of authority,” DMFI added, joining the growing calls for the national security minister’s ouster.

The more left-wing Israel Policy Forum said it “strongly condemns” Ben Gvir’s comments, adding that “such rhetoric is overtly racist and unacceptable.”

“Ben Gvir’s consistently hateful rhetoric harms Israel’s standing in the world and impacts stability for its citizens,” the group added.

Following widespread uproar over the remarks, parts of which were translated for foreign audiences, Ben Gvir issued a tweet Thursday night pointing out that critics had cut out the last sentence about his “right to life” from the widely circulated clips. He insisted that he wasn’t prioritizing Jewish freedom of movement over Arab freedom of movement, but rather the Jewish right to live over Arab freedom of movement.

“This is how fake news is spread: I said yesterday on a TV broadcast that the right of Jews to live and not be murdered in terror attacks prevails over the right of Arabs in Judea and Samaria to travel on the roads without security restrictions. That is why checkpoints should be placed on roads where regular terrorism and shooting by Jihadists are committed against Jews,” he wrote on X.

“But the Israeli radical left selectively cut a section out of my statement, purposefully misquoted even that, and removed the context in order to slander me as if I had made a racist declaration that Jews deserve more civil rights than Arabs,” he continued.

File: Israeli soldiers man a checkpoint at the entrance of Jericho in the West Bank, on February 28, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Also Friday, anti-government protesters rallied in Kiryat Arba near Ben Gvir’s home. The demonstrators included members of organizations opposed to Israel’s military control of the West Bank as well as protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul.

A statement from police said two people were arrested for suspected public order violations, assault and interfering with an officer. Video showed officers forcibly detainingan acitivist of the Peace Now anti-settlement watchdog.

Another clip from Kiryat Arba showed cops scuffling with a protester after taking a Palestinian flag from him.

The protest was close to Ben Gvir’s home at a municipal park named for Kahane that also houses the grave of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 shot dead 29 Muslim worshipers and wounded 125 others at Hebron’s Tomb of Patriarchs. Ben Gvir for years hung a photo of Goldstein in his home before agreeing to take it down three years ago after it became heavily publicized in local media and began to harm him politically.

Activists claimed police guarded Goldstein’s grave and prevented them from approaching it.

“Ben Gvir is a terrorist,” protesters could be heard chanting.

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 Kahane.

Ben Gvir was convicted on terror-related charges in the past for anti-Arab activities. He insists he has moderated in recent years, and does not believe in all of the views of his mentor, such as Kahane’s calls for expelling all Arabs. Instead, Ben Gvir has said he only supports expelling “disloyal” Arabs. The far-right Otzma Yehudit party chairman has continued to speak at annual memorial events for Kahane.

Jacob Magid and AP contributed to this report

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