ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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US prods PM to condemn Smotrich’s ‘repugnant, disgusting’ call to wipe out Huwara

State Department says ‘abhorrent’ remarks will incite violence, opening fresh rift weeks before finance minister is slated to fly to Washington for Israel Bonds meeting

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Chairman of the Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich and party members visit Netiv Haavot neighborhood in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Chairman of the Religious Zionism party MK Bezalel Smotrich and party members visit Netiv Haavot neighborhood in Gush Etzion, West Bank, on October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The US on Wednesday said Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s call to “wipe out” the Palestinian town of Huwara “amounts to incitement to violence” and urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to disavow the comments by his senior coalition partner, the latest member of his cabinet to grapple with Washington.

“These comments were irresponsible. They were repugnant. They were disgusting,” US State Department spokesman Price said, upon being asked about Smotrich’s comments during a press briefing. “Just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence.”

Smotrich told a panel discussion earlier in the day that “I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it.” The comments came amid an outpouring of shock and horror in Israel and abroad after hundreds of settlers ransacked the Palestinian town of Huwara and surrounding villages Sunday night, setting dozens of buildings and vehicles on fire, in revenge for a terror attack in which Israeli brothers driving through the town were gunned down hours earlier. One Palestinian man was killed and hundreds more were injured during the rampage, which Israel’s top general in the West Bank referred to as a “pogrom.”

The US condemnation pointed to a further escalation of frustration in Washington with Israel days after the Biden administration expressed its outrage over the deadly rioting, and called on Israel to prosecute the perpetrators and compensate the dozens of Palestinians whose property was destroyed.

“We call on Prime Minister Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials to publicly and clearly reject and disavow these comments,” Price added Wednesday. As of the end of the day, no member of the Israeli cabinet had done so.

Smotrich made his comments less than two weeks before he is slated to travel to the US to speak at the annual Israel Bonds conference, which will take place from March 12 to 14 in Washington. Smotrich’s office has yet to confirm his attendance but a source familiar with the matter confirmed the scheduled appearance to The Times of Israel last month.

A US official said Monday that no official meetings between Smotrich and Biden officials were on the books to date. The Treasury Department did not respond to a query last month as to whether its officials will meet with Smotrich, who has a long history of remarks against Arabs, Palestinians, the LGBTQ community, and non-Orthodox Jews.

Asked by CNN if he would condemn Smotrich’s comments following Price’s call for “senior Israeli officials to publicly and clearly reject and disavow these comments,” Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog said, “Notwithstanding the fact that Israel has been subjected to a recent wave of horrific terror attacks against its civilians, it is absolutely not Israeli policy and it’s against our values to respond by wiping out civilian villages.”

The remarks about Huwara, a town of some 7,000 Palestinians, made at a conference hosted by The Marker business daily Wednesday, came after Smotrich 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” on Sunday evening.

Israeli soldiers stand next to a damaged Palestinian building in the town of Huwara, near the West Bank city of Nablus, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023.(AP/Ohad Zwigenberg)

“Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich replied.

He added “God forbid,” that the job should not be done by private citizens. He condemned the rampage, saying, “We shouldn’t be dragged into anarchy in which civilians take the law into their own hands.”

Smotrich, who heads the far-right Religious Zionism party, serves as a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of the body that authorizes settlement construction and demolition of Palestinian homes in much of the West Bank, including large parts of Huwara.

As condemnations poured in, Smotrich issued a statement saying the media was trying to “create a distorted interpretation” of his remarks. He claimed Huwara is a “hostile village” where residents throw stones and shoot at Israelis every day and that he supports a “disproportionate response” by the IDF against the town for every act of terrorism in order to establish deterrence.

Palestinians walk past a torched car in the West Bank town of Huwara on February 27, 2023. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP)

He appeared to have deleted the clarification tweet but later in the day wrote, “so there isn’t any doubt, I did not mean wipe out the village of Huwara, rather act in a targeted manner against the terrorists and supporters of terrorism living there and to exact a heavy price from them in order to restore security to the [Jewish] residents of the area.”

Both settlers and Palestinians use the main road through Huwara, which sits just to the south of Nablus, making it a frequent flashpoint of tensions.

Smotrich is now the third member of Netanyahu’s relatively new cabinet to lock horns with US President Joe Biden’s administration, joining National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Diaspora Affairs Minister Amichai Chikli.

In November, Price blasted as “abhorrent” a memorial event for the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane that Ben Gvir attended shortly before being sworn in as minister.

Days into the new government, Ben Gvir visited the flashpoint Temple Mount in what US Ambassador Tom Nides later said was designed to “stir up trouble,” given the minister’s longstanding support for upending the status quo at the compound in order to allow Jewish prayer.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, March 10, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool/AFP)

Chikli last week went on the Kan public broadcaster and called on Nides to “mind his own business” after the envoy urged Israel to “pump the breaks” on its judicial overhaul plans. The ambassador responded on Tuesday that “I really think that most Israelis do not want America to stay out of their business,” ostensibly referencing the security, political and diplomatic support that Washington has provided Jerusalem for decades.

The rifts have added pressure to existing strain between Jerusalem and Washington over differences in policy regarding the Palestinians, with Israel’s approval of unprecedented amounts of settlement expansion in the West Bank drawing repeated condemnations from the Biden administration.

Amid the growing tensions between the US and Israel, Axios reported that Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Council chairman Tzachi Hanegbi are slated to visit Washington next week for meetings with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other senior US officials to discuss coordinating against Iran. While the Israeli officials will likely want to focus the talks on Tehran’s nuclear pursuit, the US has often used such meetings to also discuss the Palestinian issue.

A US official told The Times of Israel Tuesday that US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Israel next week.

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