Middle East Eye / March 7, 2023
Ever since entering the Knesset in 2015, Smotrich has made no secret of his genocidal desire to crush the Palestinians. Washington must add him to its sanctions list immediately.
On 26 February 2023, in Huwwara, in the occupied West Bank, hundreds of extreme right-wing Israelis set fire to dozens of houses, sheepfolds, shops and cars. One Palestinian was killed and almost 400 people were injured in the pogrom, and some residents had to flee their homes to avoid being burned to death.
On that same day, Israel’s Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich had liked a tweet by the deputy head of the settlers’ Samaria Regional Council, Davidi Ben Zion, saying that “the village of Huwwara should be wiped out today… Enough with talk about building and strengthening the settlement, the deterrence needs to happen immediately and there is no room for mercy”.
Three days later, on 1 March, Smotrich was asked in an interview why he had liked the tweet. He answered: “The village of Huwwara needs to be wiped out. I think that the State of Israel needs to do that – not, God forbid, private individuals.”
In response, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said: “I want to be very clear about this. These comments were irresponsible. They were repugnant. They were disgusting. And just as we condemn Palestinian incitement to violence, we condemn these provocative remarks that also amount to incitement to violence.”
It is impossible not to interpret Smotrich’s latest outpourings as anything other than an incitement to continue carrying out pogroms in Huwwara and other Palestinian villages and towns.
This was not just a “disgusting” reference to what had already been done in Huwwara or a “provocative remark”.
Smotrich’s three possibilities
Over the years, some of Smotrich’s comments can only, in my view, be construed as direct and public incitement to commit violence against the Palestinian people. Israeli legal scholars have argued that such remarks breached international law and “induced others to commit war crimes”.
In May 2017, then a member of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, Smotrich explained at a conference of religious Zionists his official plan for the Palestinian people, whereby they could choose from three possibilities: They could either leave the occupied territories, continue to live there with second-class status, or continue resisting, in which case “the Israel Defense Forces will know what to do”.
When asked whether he also intended to kill women and children, Smotrich said: “In war as in war.”
As Professor Daniel Blatman, a distinguished historian of the Holocaust and genocide at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, wrote, this plan unabashedly put on the table the option of genocide, if the Palestinians did not agree to leave or else live under an apartheid regime.
In an interview with Haaretz, published on 1 December 2016, Smotrich was asked “and those who do not go and do not accept you as the sovereign power – in my view, that’s most of the Palestinians?”
He replied: “Those who do not go will either accept the rule of the Jewish state, in which case they can remain, and as for those who do not, we will fight them and defeat them.”
When asked “how? Be concrete,” Smotrich answered: “With an army, with weapons. What do you mean, ‘how’? That’s what we did in 1948 – we fought and we won. We will fight, and we won’t fight with our hands tied, as they are today, the way the Israeli Defense Forces has to fight, but in fact just continues to let the engine, the fuel, that drives terrorism, operate.”
‘You are here by mistake’
On 6 September 2017, in Hashiloach Magazine, Smotrich published his plan for the Palestinian people. He explained: “It is likely, of course, that not everyone will adopt these two options, and there will be those who will insist on choosing the third ‘option’ – to continue using violence against the IDF, the State of Israel and the Jewish population. Such terrorists will be treated with determination by the security forces, with greater intensity than we do today and on more favourable terms for us.”
On 13 October 2021, Smotrich said in a speech to Palestinian Knesset members: “You are here by mistake because Ben-Gurion did not finish the job in ’48 and did not throw you out.”
A member of the Israeli security forces scuffles with a protester as Palestinian and Israeli peace activists demonstrate at the entrance of Huwwara in the occupied West Bank, 3 March 2023 (AFP)
On 14 October 2021, after MK Ahmad Tibi said that Smotrich had made a neo-Nazi comment about the Palestinian Knesset members, Smotrich responded that: “People like him have no place in the country.”
On 2 November 2021, Smotrich retweeted a tweet about the decision by Palestinian families living in Sheikh Jarrah to reject the Supreme Court’s compromise proposal that they recognize the settlers’ ownership of their homes and in return be able to stay there for a few more years.
Then he tweeted a quote from the Book of Joshua: “For it came of the Lord, to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle to the intent that they should destroy them utterly, and show them no mercy, but that they should bring them to be exterminated: as the Lord had commanded Moses.”
The decision by Smotrich to make a connection between the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah and a biblical verse calling for the extermination of the enemies, speaks for itself.
As Blatman explained in his article, Smotrich relies on the biblical Book of Joshua as his model. Researchers of genocide in the ancient world, according to Blatman, have determined that the Book of Joshua is an important document for examining the characteristics of said genocides.
On 10 December 2015, Smotrich tried to downplay the severity of a violent incident in Duma village in the West Bank, in which three Palestinian members of the same family, including an 18-month-old baby, died in an arson attack carried out by extreme right-wing Israelis.
Smotrich claimed that the Duma incident should not be defined as a terrorist action.
“I seek to deny anything and everything in this equation. Terrorism is only violence perpetrated by an enemy as part of a war against us and only this justifies taking drastic measures,” he said in a statement. “Everything else is a serious crime, a heinous crime, a nationalist crime, but not terrorism.”
On 5 May 2016, in comments marking Holocaust Remembrance Day, Smotrich justified (in a post on his Facebook page) the murder of Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir as part of “just revenge” and said that Jewish terrorists act not out of racism but because of a “void” left by the state that is not carrying out reprisals “in legitimate ways”.
Like all of these previous comments, Smotrich’s statements from last week about the pogrom in Huwwara can only be construed as a direct and public incitement to commit genocide against the Palestinian people.
According to article 3(c) of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, and according to the judgments of the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda (ICTR) and the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), in terms of the mental element necessary for the crime of “incitement” to commit crimes against humanity and genocide, the instigator must act intentionally, that is, there must be an intention to provoke or cause to commit the crime, or at least awareness of the likelihood that committing a crime will be a possible result of his actions.
The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide establishes on state parties the obligation to take measures to prevent and to punish the crime of genocide (Article 1), including by enacting relevant legislation and punishing perpetrators, “whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals” (Article 4).
That obligation to “prevent” genocide, in addition to the prohibition not to commit genocide, has been considered a norm of international customary law and therefore binding on all states, including the US.
On 18 April 2016, the US Congress legislated the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, which allows for imposing sanctions on any foreign person based on credible evidence that he is responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.
As detailed above, Smotrich, in my opinion, appears to support genocide and the full denial of human and civil rights recognized in international law of those he sees as “enemies”. Under these circumstances, he should be sanctioned in accordance with Article 3(b), including inadmissibility to the US and the blocking of his property.
The Global Magnitsky Act requires the president to report to Congress annually, by 10 December, on designations made over the previous year. According to the December 2019 report, the US prioritizes actions “that are expected to produce a tangible and significant impact on the sanctioned person and their affiliates, to prompt changes in behaviour or disrupt the activities of malign actors”.
On 10 December 2021, Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, stated: “We are determined to put human rights at the centre of our foreign policy, and we reaffirm this commitment by using appropriate tools and authorities to draw attention to and promote accountability for human rights violations and abuses, no matter where they occur”.
This should also apply to Bezalel Smotrich. And especially now, after Smotrich has been appointed to senior political positions, including becoming a minister in the Defense Ministry responsible for the Military Civil Administration (Israel’s governing body in the West Bank). This has given him enormous power and the opportunity to realize his dangerous plans for genocide.
This is why 200 Israeli activists, human rights organizations, and movements who support the Palestinian people and their struggle for freedom and equality, have appealed to President Joe Biden’s administration to add Smotrich to the US sanctions list.
Since Smotrich is expected to visit the US later this month, such a decision has to be made without further delay.
Eitay Mack is an Israeli lawyer and human rights activist located between Jerusalem and Oslo; he represents Palestinians who were harmed by Israel’s security forces in the occupied West Bank, and led legal proceedings that failed to stop the training in Israel of Indian police officers serving in Kashmir and to reveal information about Israeli snipers’ shooting of protesters in the Gaza Strip