Israel Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich [Source: Reuters]
An Israeli minister with responsibility for administrating the occupied West Bank drew condemnation on Monday after he said there was no Palestinian history or culture and no such thing as a Palestinian people.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also angered neighbouring Jordan for speaking at a podium covered in what appeared to be a variation of the Israeli flag that showed an Israeli state with expanded boundaries that included the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Jordan.
Is there a Palestinian history or culture? There is none,” he can be heard saying in footage of the speech he gave on Sunday at a conference in France shared widely on social media. “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”
Smotrich, who heads a religious-nationalist party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, made the speech on the same day that Israeli and Palestinian officials met in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for de-escalation talks ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover holiday.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned Smotrich’s remarks, saying they amounted to incitement to violence.
Deputy U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq described Smotrich’s remarks as “completely unhelpful,” telling reporters in New York: “Obviously, there very clearly and distinctly is a Palestinian people. Their rights are upheld by the United Nations.”
Jordan, which made peace with Israel in 1994, voiced outrage over the flag on stage beside him and said it had summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest.
“It’s an irresponsible provocative behavior by an incumbent minister and a break of international norms and the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. This extremist behavior pushes towards escalation,” said Sinan al Majali, spokeperson for the Jordan’s Foreign Ministry.
Jordan called on the Israeli government to take a “clear and frank” stance, Majali said.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry later wrote on Twitter: “Israel is committed to the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan. There has been no change in the position of the State of Israel, which recognizes the territorial integrity of the Hashemite Kingdom.”
A spokesperson for Smotrich said the flag was set decoration by the conference organisers and that the minister was a guest.
A statement by the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said that, by denying the existence of the Palestinian people and their legitimate national rights in their homeland, Israeli leaders “foster an environment that fuels Jewish extremism and terrorism against our people”.
Western allies also criticized the remarks.
“We utterly object to that kind of language,” said John Kirby, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson. “We don’t want to see any rhetoric, any action or rhetoric … that can stand in the way or become and obstacle to a viable two-state solution, and language like that does.”
The European Union said it “firmly deplores yet another unacceptable comment by Minister Smotrich,” calling it dangerous and counterproductive.
Egypt, the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel, rejected his remarks as well.
After a Palestinian gunman killed two Jewish settlers near the West Bank town of Huwara last month, and settlers responded by torching homes and cars there, killing one Palestinian, Smotrich also drew global outrage when he said Huwara should be “erased”. In the face of international condemnation, he later said he “misspoke”, but he did not apologies.
There has been a surge of confrontations in the West Bank over the past year, with near-daily Israeli military raids and escalating violence by Jewish settlers, amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians.
Over the past year, Israeli forces have killed more than 250 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians, while more than 40 Israelis and foreigners have died in Palestinian attacks.
Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war.
U.S.-brokered peace talks have been stalled since 2014 and Palestinians say Israel has undermined their hope for a viable state by expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land.