Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has welcomed Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s retraction of the statement he made calling to wipe out the West Bank town of Huwara.
“It is important for all of us to work to tone down the rhetoric and lower the temperature,” Netanyahu tweeted early Sunday morning.
“That includes speaking out forcefully against inappropriate statements and even correcting our own statements when we misspeak, or when our words are taken out of context,” he continued.
Following the death of the Yaniv brothers and Elan Ganeles
Smotrich spoke out after last week’s events in which a Palestinian terrorist fatally shot two brothers, Hallel Menachem Yaniv, 22, and Yagel Ya’acov Yaniv, 20, as they drove on Route 60 in Huwara on February 26.
Settlers attacked Huwara later that night, setting fire to dozens of homes and vehicles. The IDF is investigating the shooting death of a Palestinian man, Sameh Aqtash, 37, during the attack.
On February 27, another terrorist fatally shot US-Israeli citizen Elan Ganeles, 26, as he drove through the Jordan Valley to a wedding.
Netanyahu tweeted that he wanted to “thank minister Bezalel [Smotrich] for making clear that his choice of words regarding the vigilante attacks on [Huwara] following the murder of the Yaniv brothers were inappropriate and that he is strongly opposed to intentionally harming innocent civilians.
“While minister [Smotrich] clarified his position, I am still waiting to hear condemnation from the Palestinian Authority for the murder of the Yaniv brothers. And Israel is waiting for the international community to insist that the PA condemn that attack.
“Not only has it not done so, but it also continues to turn a blind eye to the PA’s rampant incitement, to the disgusting spectacle of Palestinians handing out sweets to ceeblrate terror attacks against Jews and to the official PA pay-to-slay policy, in which the PA gives money to terrorists to murder Jews.
“The international community’s silence in the face of Palestinian support for terrorism must finally come to an end,” he concluded in English.
Netanyahu also issued comments in Hebrew that differed slightly, with the prime minister stressing it was important that Smotrich had clarified “he had no intention of harming those who were innocent or of [carrying out] collective punishment. I know his positions and they were reflected in his clarification. None of us are infallible, including foreign diplomats.”
In a follow-up tweet, he added that “Israel’s policy is clear: fight aggressively against terrorists and supporters of terrorism, avoid harming innocents and collective punishment.”
Until this moment, the PA has not condemned the killing of the Yaniv brothers and “I regret that there are those in the international community who rushed to condemn Israel but have not yet demanded this necessary condemnation from the PA,” Netanyahu said.
Smotrich issued his retraction during a heated and prolonged interview with Channel 12, in which he said that his words were “incorrect” and were “a slip of the tongue” in the emotional and heated aftermath of the killing of the Yaniv brothers.
Listeners should have known not to take those words literally, Smotrich said, adding that only someone with a “fevered mind” would impinge that “I or anyone in Israel would desire to harm innocent people.”
Smotrich clarified that he had meant to underscore that the IDF should be “more proactive and aggressive in the fight against terrorism because people here are being murdered.”
In the aftermath of the killing of the Yaniv brothers, residents of Huwara set off fireworks and handed out sweets, Smotrich charged, adding that residents of that town were involved in terror attacks against Israelis.
Smotrich, who is also a minister in the Defense Ministry, is tasked with oversight of civilian life in Area C of the West Bank, including oversight of Huwara.
The Huwara incident was a “very serious” incident of “nationalistic crime” and citizens should not be allowed to take the law into their own hands as they did there, Smotrich said, as he clarified that he did not view it as an act of terror.
One has to be careful with the terror designation, Smotrich explained, because Israeli demonstrators who blocked roads and who acted violently toward the police could also be considered to be carrying out “acts of terror.”
Smotrich's US tensions
Smotrich’s words on Huwara have been roundly condemned by the international community with the Israeli media reporting that the US is weighing whether to block his entry to the United States next week in light of his plans to address the Israel Bonds group.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price last week characterized Smotrich’s statement on Huwara as “disgusting.” According to Channel 12, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said that Smotrich’s words were “stupid” and if he could, he would “throw Smotrich out of the plane” as he flew to the US.
The finance minister tweeted in response late Saturday night, “I am not angry with the @USAmbIsrael. I am convinced he did not mean to incite to kill me when he said that I should be thrown from the plane, just as I did not mean harm to innocents when I said that Huwara should be wiped out. People sometimes use harsh expressions that they don’t mean [to be taken literally] to convey a harsh message. It happens to everyone.”
Smotrich had initially generated a domestic and international fervor when he spoke about Huwara during a public interview on March 1 at a conference organized by the Israeli business news organization The Marker. Smotrich said, “I think that Huwara needs to be wiped out, but the State of Israel needs to do it, most certainly not private citizens.”
“I think that Huwara needs to be wiped out, but the State of Israel needs to do it, most certainly not private citizens.”Bezalel Smotrich
It followed his decision to like a tweet by Samaria Regional Council head David Ben-Zion who had written that the town of Huwara had to be “erased.”
In an unusual move on Sunday evening, a group of 13 settler leaders called on West Bank settlers to remain law-abiding.
“It’s forbidden to take the law into your own hands,” said the regional council heads of: Samaria, Yossi Dagan; of Binyamin, Israel Ganz; of South Hebron Hills Yochai Damri; Shai Allon of Beit El, and Asaf Mintzer of Elkana.
“The pain is immense and the blood boils,” they said, but it’s important to “allow the IDF to win.”
Tzvi Joffre contributed to this report.