“A terrorist is a terrorist,” Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said on Wednesday, doubling down on his characterization of Hezbollah a day earlier as a terrorist organization, something that caused an uproar in Italy.
Salvini’s comments came at a photo opportunity in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before their meeting.
“I had problems with newspapers in Italy because I called Hezbollah terrorists, so they came out against me,” Salvini said.
Netanyahu replied, “It’s clear Hezbollah hides behind civilians, fires on civilians and kills civilians, but it is inconceivable to call them terrorists.”
During a tour of the northern border on Tuesday, shortly after he arrived for a 24-hour visit, Salvini posted a tweet calling Hezbollah terrorists.
Salvini is the head of the rightist League Party, in a coalition with the Five Star Movement.
Following his tweet, Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta, who is a member of the Five Star Movement, urged Salvini to think carefully about what he says. “We always have to have in mind that our soldiers every day risk their lives for our stability,” she said in a statement.
Another Five Star politician, foreign ministry undersecretary Manlio Di Stefano, went further: “To speak about geopolitics without understanding the causes and only to support the strongest party, damages [the region’s] people and peace.”
The row comes as the balance of power between the League and Five Star in the government appears to be shifting, with Salvino’s party surging past its allies in the polls. Newspapers have speculated Salvini might look to trigger early elections next year, although he has repeatedly denied this.
Italy is very cautious when it comes to Hezbollah, afraid of retribution against the Italian troops that serve in UNIFIL, the UN peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon. Of the 43 countries contributing to the nearly 10,500 UNIFIL troops, Italy has the second largest contingent, with a force of 1,069 soldiers – second only to Indonesia, with 1,306 troops in the force. UNIFIL is also headed by Italy’s Maj.-Gen. Stefano Del Col.
Salvini, who is posting a great deal on both Twitter and Facebook from Israel, posted a video on Facebook defending his characterization of Hezbollah.
“It is strange to read in the Italian newspapers that some people are amazed that I call Islamist terrorists what they are, Islamist terrorists,” he said. “Let us give the right weight to words. If we do not identify the adversary, I am not saying enemy but adversary, then the game will never be won.”
The EU decided in 2013 to designate the armed wing of Hezbollah as a terrorist group, but not the entire organization. Netanyahu has said that one of the reasons for the very public uncovering of the tunnels is to show the world the true nature of Hezbollah, and to get it to delegitimize the entire organization.
Netanyahu, before meeting Salvini, seen as one of the leaders of the far-right political movement gaining ground throughout Europe, said he is a “great friend of Israel.”
Referring to the trip Salvini took to the Lebanese border immediately upon arriving on Tuesday to see the Hezbollah tunnels the IDF is uncovering, Netanyahu said: “You had the opportunity to see the terror tunnels yourself directly. This is a clear act of aggression of Hezbollah against us and against the norms of the international community.”
Israel, he said, believes UNIFIL “has to do a stronger job, tougher job, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the international community. They should stop Hezbollah from taking these acts of aggression against Israel.”
Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Salvini – whose stridently anti-immigration policies has triggered a great deal of controversy – visited Yad Vashem. He also met Wednesday with Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked.
THOUGH NETANYAHU called him a “great friend,” President Reuven Rivlin did not find the time to meet with him, citing “scheduling” issues. Rivlin, in a CNN interview last month, came out strongly against neo-fascist movements in Europe, including leaders of those movements supportive of Israel.
“Today, there are neo-fascist movements that have a great influence once again in the hearts of people around the whole world. There are countries where it’s returning, and it’s very dangerous. And the same neo-fascist movements are movements that very much admire, according to what they say, the State of Israel,” Rivlin said.
“I say to them, gentlemen, this is impossible, it’s impossible to say ‘We admire the State of Israel. We want ties with the State of Israel, but we are neo-fascists.’ Someone who is neo-fascist is truly a person who is totally against the spirit, the principles and the values of the State of Israel.”Reuters contributed to this report.
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