Israeli minister condemned for claiming ‘no such thing’ as a Palestinian people

AP  /  March 20, 2023

Bezalel Smotrich’s comments come as far-right coalition pushes ahead with judiciary overhaul.

An Israeli minister has claimed there is “no such thing” as a Palestinian people as Israel’s new coalition government, its most hardline ever, ploughed ahead with a part of its plan to overhaul the judiciary.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition said it was pushing a key part of the overhaul – which would give the coalition control over who becomes a justice or a judge – before the parliament takes a month’s holiday break next week.

The development came a day after an Israeli and Palestinian delegation at a meeting in Egypt, mediated by Egyptian, Jordanian and US officials, pledged to take steps to lower tensions roiling the region ahead of a sensitive holiday season.

It reflected the limited influence the Biden administration appears to have over Israel’s far-right government and raised questions about attempts to lower tensions, both inside Israel and with the Palestinians.

As the negotiators were issuing a joint communique, the Israeli finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, delivered a speech in Paris saying the notion of a Palestinian people was artificial.

“There is no such thing as a Palestinian nation. There is no Palestinian history. There is no Palestinian language,” he said in France late on Sunday. He spoke at a lectern draped with what appeared to be a map of Israel that included the occupied West Bank and parts of Jordan.

The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, said Smotrich’s remarks were “conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist Zionist ideology that governs the parties of the current Israeli government”.

A far-right Jewish settler leader who opposes Palestinian statehood, Smotrich has a history of making offensive statements against the Palestinians. Last month, he called for the Palestinian town of Hawara in the West Bank to be “erased” after radical Jewish settlers rampaged in response to a shooting attack that killed two Israelis. Smotrich later apologized after an international uproar.

During Sunday’s talks in Egypt, a Palestinian gunman carried out another shooting attack in Hawara, seriously wounding an Israeli man.

The latest violence, along with Smotrich’s comments, illustrated the challenges that lie ahead in soothing tensions after a year of deadly violence in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. More than 200 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and more than 40 Israelis or foreigners have been killed in Palestinian attacks during that time.

Sunday’s summit was held ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which begins this week. The Jewish festival of Passover is set to take place in April, coinciding with Ramadan.

The upcoming period is sensitive because large numbers of Jewish and Muslim faithful are expected to pour into Jerusalem’s Old City. Large numbers of Jews are also expected to visit a key Jerusalem holy site, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount – an act the Palestinians view as a provocation. Clashes at the site in 2021 helped trigger an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip.

The heightened tensions with the Palestinians coincide with mass demonstrations inside Israel against Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the judicial system. Opponents of the measure have carried out disruptive protests, and the debate has embroiled the country’s military, where some reservists are refusing to show up for military service. Netanyahu has rejected a compromise by Israel’s figurehead president.

During his call with Netanyahu, Biden appealed for caution, the White House said, “as a friend of Israel in the hopes that there can be a compromise formula found”.

Netanyahu’s government says the plan is meant to correct an imbalance that has given the courts too much power over the legislative process. Critics say the overhaul would upend the country’s delicate system of checks and balances and push Israel toward authoritarianism. They also say Netanyahu could find an escape route from his corruption trial through the overhaul.

The protests, along with the rising violence with the Palestinians, have posed a major challenge for the new government. So far this year, 85 Palestinians have been killed, according to the Associated Press. Fourteen people in Israel, all but one of them civilians, have been killed in Palestinian attacks.

Israel says most of those killed have been militants. But stone-throwing youths protesting the incursions and people not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.

Israel captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967. The Palestinians seek those territories for their future independent state.