Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for the state of Israel to wipe the West Bank Palestinian town of Huwara off the map, three days after settler vigilantes burned dozens of homes and cars there.
“I think that Huwara needs to be wiped out, but the State of Israel needs to do it, most certainly not private citizens,” he said on Wednesday during a public interview at a conference by business news organization TheMarker.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price sharply rebuked the Finance Minister’s words stating that “these comments were irresponsible. They were repugnant, they were disgusting."
“Just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence. We call on Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and other senior officials to publicly and clearly reject and disavow these comments,” he said.
Smotrich was responding to a question asking why he had pressed “like” on a tweet by Samaria Regional Council deputy head David Ben-Zion. The tweet was written after Sunday’s terror attack in which a Palestinian gunman fatally shot two brothers – Hillel Menachem Yaniv, 22, and Yagel Yaakov Yaniv, 20 – as they drove on Route 60 through the town of Huwara.
Ben-Zion posted a photo of their car with red police tape stretched near it.
West Bank official: Town of Huwara has to be erased today
“Here in Huwara, the blood of our children has been spilled on the street. These were Samaria residents who were killed here less than an hour ago. The town of Huwara has to be erased today,” Ben-Zion wrote.
“Enough with talk of construction and strengthening the settlements. The deterrence that was lost has to be restored. There is no room for mercy,” he said in the tweet that was posted hours before the vigilante attack against Huwara. It has since been deleted but an image of the tweet is still circulating on social media.
Smotrich claimed during the TheMarker interview that he had not meant his support of Ben-Zion’s statement to be a call for vigilante justice.
He said he had also called for people to calm down and not descend into anarchy, but added that what had contributed to public anger was the shooting of people in the streets.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid said Smotrich’s words were “incitement to commit war crimes. Jews don’t engage in pogroms and Jews don’t erase towns. This government has gone off the rails.”
MK Aida Touma-Sliman said, “The international community must wake up and stop this murderous government.”
At issue with Smotrich’s statement is not just that he is a high-level minister, but that he has a double role as a minister in the Defense Ministry tasked with oversight for civilian life in Area C of the West Bank, including for Palestinians. More than half of Huwara is located in Area C.
Smotrich spoke out after Israel’s allies, particularly the United States, condemned the attack and called for accountability.
During the violent assault on the town of Huwara, a Palestinian man named Sameh Aqtash, 37, was killed, but it is unclear if he was shot by Jewish extremists or by Israeli security forces who responded to the incident.
שר האוצר @bezalelsm בראיון עמי לוועידה הפיננסית של דמרקר: ״עשיתי לייק לציוץ שקרא למחוק את הכפר חווארה, כיוון שאני חושב שאת הכפר חווארה צריך למחוק. המדינה היא זו שצריכה למחוק אותו״. pic.twitter.com/bYOC64Y1U8— מתן חודורוב (@MatanHodorov) March 1, 2023
After Smotrich spoke at the conference, he issued a statement in which he tried to backtrack from his statement, which has been widely circulated on social media.
“Just to erase any doubt, I did not mean that the town of Huwara should be wiped out,” he tweeted. He claimed that he had only meant “that one has to act in a targeted manner against the terrorists and supporters of terrorism and to exact a heavy price from them in order to restore security to area residents.”
In a more extended statement, he accused the media of twisting his words and publicizing only a small section of the interview.
Smotrich said he had told TheMarker that Huwara was “a hostile village” that was at the forefront of terror activity. Palestinians from the town are continually engaged in attacks against Jews, whether by throwing stones or shooting at them, he charged.
Still, Smotrich underscored, Israeli citizens “should not take the law into their own hands.”
That being said, he noted that he supported harsh, disproportionate responses by the IDF to terror attacks.
“For each stone that is thrown, a [Palestinian] shop should be closed. For every Molotov cocktail, there should be arrests and deportations,” he said.
When a terror cell is uncovered, a painful price should be exacted, “until the terrorists and their supporters realize that our children’s blood should not be abandoned [spilled] and that terrorism does not pay. This is the way to deal with terrorism and prevent additional victims,” he added.