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Israeli minister's 'no Palestinians' tirade sparks Arab outcry

Israel's far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has a history of incendiary remarks
— Ramallah (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

The Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan on Monday condemned as "racist" a firebrand Israeli minister's remarks denying the existence of the Palestinian people, with Amman summoning Israel's ambassador for a rebuke.

Israel's far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, is part of veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu's hard-right government that took office in December.

Smotrich had already faced international rebuke in early March after calling for a Palestinian town in the occupied West Bank to be "wiped out", amid spiralling violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"There are no Palestinians, because there isn't a Palestinian people," he said on Sunday in Paris, quoting French-Israeli Zionist activist Jacques Kupfer at an event in his memory, according to a video circulating on social media.

Palestinian prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said ahead of a cabinet meeting on Monday the "inflammatory statements" made by Smotrich provided "conclusive evidence of the extremist, racist Zionist ideology... of the current Israeli government".

Evoking biblical "prophecies" that are "beginning to come true", Smotrich said: "After 2,000 years... God is gathering his people. The people of Israel are returning home."

"There are Arabs around who don't like it, so what do they do? They invent a fictitious people and claim fictitious rights to the Land of Israel, only to fight the Zionist movement," he said.

"It is the historical truth, it is the biblical truth."

Farhan Haq, deputy spokesman for UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, dubbed the minister's remarks "completely unhelpful", stressing the Palestinian people "obviously" exists.

"We continue to support their rights and to push for a two-state solution," Haq said.

- Jordanian rebuke -


The minister, who met no French government officials during his trip, was speaking from a lectern which featured a map of so-called Greater Israel, including the West Bank, annexed Golan Heights, blockaded Gaza Strip and Jordan -- the neighbouring Arab country that signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994.

Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967, when it also seized east Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights.

Smotrich's comments came as Israeli and Palestinian representatives met in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh along with Egyptian, Jordanian and US officials for "extensive discussions on ways to de-escalate tensions," according to a joint statement.

The Jordanian foreign ministry on Monday called the remarks "extremist racism" and warned his "use of a map... that encompasses the border of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan" may be in violation of the 1994 peace accord.

The Israeli foreign ministry tweeted shortly afterwards to clarify "Israel is committed to the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan" and "recognises the territorial integrity of the Hashemite Kingdom", without mentioning the content of the speech.

In a following statement, the Jordanian ministry said it had summoned the Israeli ambassador to receive a "strongly worded letter of protest to convey to his government".

Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab country to recognise and sign a peace treaty with Israel, condemned the "inflammatory and unacceptable" as well as "racist" remarks, Cairo's foreign ministry said in a statement.

- 'Obviously' false -

A Palestinian public broadcaster's office in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem was ordered shut

Smotrich, who lives in a West Bank settlement, had called in early March for the Palestinian town of Huwara to be "wiped out" after two Israelis were shot dead there by an alleged Hamas militant, remarks he later walked back.

Hundreds of rampaging Israeli settlers torched Palestinian homes and cars in Huawara after the shooting, and a Palestinian man was killed in a nearby village.

Violence has intensified in the West Bank in recent months, with fears of further escalation during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, due to begin this week.

The Israeli defence ministry body responsible for civil affairs in the Palestinian territories on Monday relaxed a series of restrictions with the aim of allowing more Palestinians to worship at Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third holiest, site during Ramadan.

It said women of all ages and men 55 and older from the West Bank will be allowed free access to Jerusalem for Friday prayers at the compound.

Earlier on Monday, Israel's National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, another extreme right figure in cabinet, ordered the closure of an east Jerusalem office of West Bank-based public broadcaster Palestine.

He accused it of "incitement and supporting terror" and said it was not licensed to operate from the annexed territory.

Ahmad Assaf, head of the Palestinian broadcaster, condemned the move and told AFP it was a "crime against journalism".

Since the start of the year, the conflict has claimed the lives of 86 Palestinian adults and children, including militants and civilians.

Fourteen Israeli adults and children, including members of the security forces and civilians, and one Ukrainian civilian have been killed over the same period, according to an AFP tally based on official sources from both sides.

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