Smotrich demands "erasure: of Palestinian town of 7,000 civilians
(Washington, D.C., March 1, 2023): The US State Department should issue a visa ban on Israeli Minister Bezalel Smotrich following his public statements inciting violence and atrocities against Palestinians, said Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
Such statements include his recent declaration that the State of Israel must "erase" an entire Palestinian town, which should be considered incitement to mass violence against civilians. Smotrich's statement came less than two days after a mob of Israeli settlers set fire to dozens of Palestinian homes and cars in the same town, killing one person and wounding hundreds. Smotrich, according to Israeli media reports, is planning to visit the United States in the coming weeks.
"The Biden Administration should not allow senior government officials inciting atrocities against Palestinian civilians to spread their violent and hateful rhetoric in the United States, just as it has banned government officials inciting violence against civilians from several African countries," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of DAWN. "The 'exceptional' nature of the US-Israel relationship should have its limits, and banning Smotrich would send an important signal that the U.S. will not tolerate such dangerous, reckless incitement to violence."
On February 26, 2023, armed Israeli settlers stormed and attacked the Palestinian villages of Hawara, Burin, Zaatara, and Asira al-Qabaliyya in a pre-planned raid. The attackers burned and damaged houses, vehicles and shops, injured hundreds of civilians and shot and killed Sameh Aqtash in his home in Zaatara. Earlier that day, calls to descend on the villages were shared on social media networks, explicitly "demanding revenge." Prior to the the attacks, Mr. Smotrich "liked" a tweet posted by settler leader Davidi Ben Zion, who said the town of Huwara should be "erased."
Given a chance to explain himself on Wednesday, Smotrich, who was handed sweeping powers over the occupied West Bank last week, doubled down: "I think that the town of Hawara needs to be erased. The State of Israel needs to do it, and not, heaven forbid, private citizens," Smotrich said at a conference.
Smotrich is planning to travel to the United States in March, according to Israeli media reports. In recent months, the United States has considered denying visas to the United States for Israeli settlers suspected of committing terrorist and other violent acts against Palestinian civilians, according to media reports.
"The U.S. should immediately sanction Bezalel Smotrich for directly and brazenly encouraging mass violence against civilians," said Adam Shapiro, Director of Advocacy for Israel-Palestine at DAWN. "The United States must not give the impression that it condones his hateful and violent ideology and policies, and anything less would make the Biden Administration culpable in whatever violence comes next."
The Biden Administration has the full discretionary power to deny Mr. Smotrich a visa, but also may do so on the basis of his public statements inciting violence. For example, under U.S. law, 8 U.S. Code § 1182, the State Department may deny and/or revoke visas to individuals who have "under circumstances indicating an intention to cause death or serious bodily harm, incited terrorist activity" (B)(i)(III), where "terrorist activity" is defined to include "A violent attack upon an internationally protected person (as defined in section 1116(b)(4) of title 18) or upon the liberty of such a person" (B)(iii)(III) and "A threat, attempt, or conspiracy to do any of the foregoing" (B)(iii)((VI).
Smotrich has also possibly committed the act of incitement to genocide, which also would prevent him from acquiring a U.S. visa under the statute, "Any alien who ordered, incited, assisted, or otherwise participated in genocide, as defined in section 1091(a) of title 18, is inadmissible" (E)(ii). 18 U.S. Code § 1091(a) defines genocide as: "Whoever, whether in time of peace or in time of war and with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such," including "kills members of that group;" (a)(1); "causes serious bodily injury to members of that group (a)(2); and "subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part" (a)(4).
Israeli scholars have suggested in the past that Smotrich's violent rhetoric and detailed policy plans to expel Palestinians from the occupied territories could amount to genocide.
There are several other grounds upon which the Biden Administration can and should deny a visa to Smotrich. One such rationale is Mr. Smotrich's role in undermining democratic processes and institutions in Israel. Smotrich is a leading figure in the current Israeli government that is undertaking an overhaul of Israel's constitutional order, removing nearly all checks and balances, undermining the independence of the Israeli judicial system, and limiting political participation of the Palestinian citizens of Israel.
President Biden and Secretary Blinken have already warned the Israeli government that steps to undermine the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary, and weaken Israel's democracy will impact the two countries' relationship. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has nevertheless pushed ahead with parliamentary procedures to pass the legislation.
The Biden Administration has preemptively issued visa bans for far less violent rhetoric, in an effort to protect democratic processes and institutions in foreign countries. On January 25, 2023, Secretary Blinken announced that the State Department would "restrict visas of those believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining democracy in Nigeria," including the elections that were held on February 25, 2023, one month after the State Department decision. In 2021, Secretary Blinken announced a similar visa ban on Cameroonian officials who were undermining peace by "inciting violence, human rights violations and abuses."
The United States also has in the past denied visas to Israeli officials for their association with terrorist groups that espouse nearly identical ideological and policy goals as Smotrich. In 2012, the United States denied an entry visa to sitting member of Knesset Michael Ben Ari, a member of Jewish Power party now led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir. In a 2019 article, former US diplomat Noah Siegel, who led the committee that considered such entry bans, described the discussions and logic behind the decision. "It was important to me that if the Viper committee was able to judge the minor indiscretions of a Palestinian teenager, we could certainly consider the case of a prominent Jewish public figure who was publicly advocating racist Kahanist policies," Siegel wrote.
Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism Party, was named Finance Minister by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his current government. He is considered an extremist supporting full Israeli annexation and sovereignty over the West Bank and changes to Israeli law to give the Knesset power to overrule the Supreme Court. In previous sessions of the Knesset, he introduced legislation to achieve both goals, and successfully negotiated both positions in his party's coalition agreement with Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party, as well as the guiding principles of the nascent government.
Smotrich is widely condemned even among ardent supporters of Israel. In 2021, the Anti-Defamation League stated that "Smotrich's hateful and racist comments have no place in the Knesset." The Board of Deputies of British Jews argued that he should be banned from the United Kingdom, stating in 2022 that the organization "reject[s] the abominable views and the hate-provoking ideology of Bezalel Smotrich."
On Wednesday afternoon, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price described Smotrich's remarks as "irresponsible, repugnant and disgusting." Price said the United States expects Netanyahu to publicly reject Smotrich's "incitement to violence," but did not offer any indication that the Biden Administration would take any action of its own.