Israel’s far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich denied the existence of a Palestinian people or nationhood over the weekend, prompting a rebuke from the United States just weeks after calling for a Palestinian town to be “erased.”
Smotrich, a Jewish nationalist, argued that the idea of Palestinian nationhood was invented in the past century in response to the Zionist movement to found modern-day Israel.
“Who was the first Palestinian king? What language do the Palestinians have? Was there ever a Palestinian currency? Is there a Palestinian history or culture? Nothing. There is no such thing as a Palestinian people,” Smotrich said at a speech in Paris.
US National Security Council Spokesman John Kirby on Monday objected to the comments, saying they would not help to calm tensions in the region.
“We utterly object to that kind of language. And It’s extremely unhelpful to – again – trying to de-escalate the tensions and trying to find a viable two-state solution going forward,” Kirby said, speaking to Israeli Channel 13. “We don’t want to see any rhetoric, any action or rhetoric – quite frankly – that can stand in the way or become an obstacle to a viable two-state solution, and language like that does.”
The Palestinian Authority presidency slammed Smotrich’s remarks as “racist,” calling them “an attempt to falsify history.”
In a statement, the PA asserted that the Palestinian people “have existed on this land forever.”
Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamist movement that runs Gaza and calls for Israel’s destruction, also called Smotrich’s comments racist, saying they “clearly reflect the fascist policies of colonial settlement expansion and forced eviction of the Palestinian people, on which the occupation state was founded,” in reference to Israel.
Smotrich’s appearance in Paris also caused a diplomatic incident between Israel and Jordan. The podium he was standing at was draped in what appeared to be a variation of the Israeli flag displaying an enlarged map of Israel that included the occupied West Bank, Gaza and most of Jordan.
A spokesperson for Smotrich said the flag used at the event he attended was “set decoration” put there by the conference organizers and that the minister was only a guest, according to Reuters.
Jordan summoned the Israeli ambassador to Amman on Monday in protest, citing Smotrich’s use of the map.
Jordan’s foreign ministry “warned of the seriousness of the continuation of these extremist racist actions issued by the same minister who had previously called for the erasure of the Palestinian village of Huwara.” It added that Smotrich’s actions were a violation the Jordanian-Israel peace treaty.
Israel’s foreign ministry tweeted in response saying it was “committed to the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan” adding that Israel “recognizes the territorial integrity” of Jordan.
Tzachi Hanegbi, head of Israel’s National Security Council, also said he spoke with Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi to reaffirm Israel’s commitment to Jordan’s territorial integrity and the Israel-Jordan peace treaty.
Smotrich’s comments came on the same day that Israeli and Palestinian officials met in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, to try and calm tensions ahead of the Ramadan and Passover holidays. Among other agreements the two sides pledged “to develop a mechanism to curb and counter violence, incitement, and inflammatory statements and actions.”
The minister, who also has some powers over the Israeli unit that controls border crossings and permits for Palestinians, has a long history of denying the existence of a Palestinian nation and has previously made controversial statements about them as well as on other issues like LGBTQ rights.
Earlier this month, he made incendiary comments saying that the Palestinian town of Huwara in the West Bank “needs to be erased” after two Israeli brothers were shot and killed while driving through the town. Israeli settlers went on revenge attacks in the aftermath, where one Palestinian man died. Smotrich later apologized for the remarks saying they had been made in a “storm of emotions”.
Additional reporting by Ibrahim Dahman in Gaza and Tatiana Arias and Amir Ahmed in Atlanta.