'Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land'

US slams ‘irresponsible’ calls by Smotrich and Ben Gvir for emigration of Gazans

State Dept issues rare, unprompted critique of ministers by name, days after Biden pressed PM to rein in far-right partners; Ben Gvir unfazed: ‘We are not another star in the US flag’

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

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)
Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

The US State Department on Tuesday called out far-right Israeli ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir for advocating the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza.

“This rhetoric is inflammatory and irresponsible,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said in a relatively rare, unprompted statement calling out a pair of Israeli ministers by name.

The statement underscored growing frustration in Washington with Prime Minister Benjamin 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.

For months, Netanyahu has bucked US requests to begin planning for who will govern the Gaza Strip after the war, ostensibly recognizing that his far-right coalition partners would reject proposals that do not include Israel’s re-occupation and re-settlement of Gaza — which the security establishment, Washington and even the premier himself oppose.

After weeks of silence on the issue, Netanyahu began what two US officials last month characterized to The Times of Israel as a “political campaign,” in which he has repeatedly vowed not to allow the Palestinian Authority to again rule Gaza.

While rejecting the PA’s return, Netanyahu has offered few details on what political entity he wants to rule Gaza. His aides have spoken to reporters on condition of anonymity about the idea of “local Palestinian clan leaders” governing the Strip.

Palestinians flee the Israeli ground operation in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)

Other right-wing members of the coalition, though, have been more forthcoming about their visions for Gaza after the war, expressing support for encouraging Palestinians to emigrate from Gaza and reestablishing settlements there.

Netanyahu has not personally addressed the uproar over such calls, which in recent days received a major boost from Smotrich and Ben Gvir, but his office has issued statements insisting they do not represent government policy.

“We want to encourage willful emigration, and we need to find countries willing to take them in,” Smotrich told Channel 12 on Saturday

“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,” Ben Gvir said in a faction meeting on Monday.

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 President Joe Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Responding to these comments following the long holiday weekend in the US, the State Department’s spokesman said Tuesday, “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’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 PA. 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 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.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, in Jerusalem on June 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While Smotrich did not immediately respond to the US statement, Ben Gvir quickly issued a retort brushing off the criticism.

“I really admire the United States of America but with all due respect, we are not another star in the American flag,” Ben Gvir tweeted, repeating the same phrase he has previously used to respond to criticism from Washington.

“The United States is our best friend, but before everything else, we will do what is good for the State of Israel: The emigration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow residents [of the border area] to return home and live in security and protect IDF soldiers,” the far-right minister 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.”

Also calling out Smotrich was Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who heads the the Reform movement, the largest US Jewish denomination.

“We condemn Israeli Minister Smotrich’s call for ethnic cleansing,” Jacobs wrote on X. “Along with most major American Jewish leaders, we have refused to meet with him to sanction his politics and beliefs.”

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