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Israeli finance minister's call to erase Palestinian village was 'inappropriate,' Netanyahu says

Israel's prime minister did not appear to condemn Bezalel Smotrich's remarks outright. Instead, he implied the minister misspoke.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Feb. 23, 2023.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem last month.Ronen Zvulun / AFP - Getty Images file

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that a call from a prominent Cabinet member for a Palestinian village to be erased was “inappropriate,” days after it prompted an international outcry.

“It is important for all of us to work to tone down the rhetoric lower the temperature,” Netanyahu said in a Twitter thread, four days after Bezalel Smotrich, his finance minister, said the village of Hawara should be destroyed by the Israeli state.

In what appeared to be his first public response to Smotrich’s remarks since he made them on Wednesday, Netanyahu did not appear to condemn what the minister said outright.

Instead he implied that Smotrich misspoke and thanked him for later walking back on the comments and “making clear that his choice of words” was “inappropriate.”

Smotrich, who leads the far-right, ultranationalist Religious Zionist Party, was widely condemned after he told a journalist with Israel’s 13 News that he thought the “the village of Hawara needs to be erased.” He also said he thought “that the state of Israel needs to do it.”

His comments came after he liked a tweet that called for Hawara to be “wiped out” in the wake of a Palestinian gunman’s attack last Sunday that killed two brothers, Hillel Menachem Yaniv, 21, and Yagel Yaakov Yaniv, 19, who lived in the Israeli settlement of Har Bracha, about 5 miles away.

Hundreds of settlers, some carrying knives and guns, then tore through Hawara, setting homes and businesses ablaze. A 37-year-old Palestinian man, Sameh Hamdallah Mahmoud Aqtash, was killed by Israeli fire, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. 

Hawara is a village of 7,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Surrounded by settlements, it is often a flashpoint for violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Unlike cities such as Ramallah that are under the control of the Palestinian Authority, Hawara is mostly under Israeli security control. 

State Department spokesman Ned Price told a news conference Wednesday that Smotrich's comments were “irresponsible” and “repugnant” and said the U.S. was calling on Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials to “publicly and clearly reject and disavow these comments.”

The office of the European Union representative in Jerusalem described Smotrich's remarks as “unacceptable and intolerable,” and they were also condemned by the United Nations and Middle East powerhouses Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Smotrich, a settler leader, later backtracked, saying he didn’t mean for the village to be erased but for Israel to operate surgically within it against Palestinian militants.

However, Netanyahu’s coalition government, the most right wing in the nation’s history, did pledge settlement construction in the West Bank as its central objective upon taking power in December.

Israel captured the West Bank, alongside the Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, during the Six-Day War in 1967. It has maintained a 55-year, open-ended occupation over the West Bank ever since.

In Sunday's Twitter thread, Netanyahu also blasted the Palestinian Authority for not condemning Palestinian attacks against Israelis, and the international community for not demanding condemnations from the Palestinians.

Israel has long claimed the international community has a double standard in its expectations from its government and the Palestinian Authority.

Netanyahu's comments come as his ruling coalition faces its ninth consecutive week of anti-government protests. Across Israel, tens of thousands of demonstrators turned out Saturday to oppose a proposed overhaul to the country's legal system, which critics fear will weaken the Supreme Court, limit judicial power and threaten democratic institutions.