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US approves visa for Israel's Smotrich after backtracking 'wipe out' statement

The State Department confirmed that Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich will receive a diplomatic visa ahead of his visit to the United States next week.
Israelis stand next to a poster with the portraits of Minister of National Security Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

News site Axios reported on Thursday evening that the United States has approved the request of far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich for a diplomatic visa ahead of his trip to Washington on Sunday.

The approval comes after Smotrich backtracked his statement last week calling to "wipe out" the Palestinian town of Huwara of nearly 7,000 residents. Following a week of outrage at his comments and worldwide condemnations, Smotrich published on his Facebook page a long post, retracting his statement on Wednesday.

Smotrich, who is the finance minister and also a minister in the Defense Ministry in charge of civilian affairs in the West Bank, explained that he did some "soul searching" and it was comments by a close friend of his, a senior reserve pilot in the Israel Defense Forces, that made him change his mind.

According to the post, the pilot told Smotrich that his statement on Huwara was interpreted by fellow Israeli army pilots as a call for them to bomb and destroy the Palestinian village. Smotrich claimed that when calling to wipe out the village, he only called to destroy some of the houses alongside the main road as deterrence against more terror attacks. He did not intend, he wrote, to call for or imply people should be harmed.

"I can no longer resolve myself in blaming others. I'm required for a soul check," Smotrich wrote in Hebrew. "I really did not think that someone serious was able to understand from my words a call for indiscriminately killing of women and children in the village," he added.

Last month, following the killing two Israeli brothers driving through Huwara, and a rampage by settlers in the village, burning to the ground 35 houses, Smotrich said he agreed with a tweet calling to "wipe out" Huwara.

“Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich said at the time. 

After his statement, several American Jewish organizations demanded that Smotrich not be given an entry visa to the United States. US senior officials said at the time that Smotrich will not be received by his American counterparts while in Washington.

Speaking at an Al-Monitor event shortly after the publication of the post by Smotrich, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said, "We saw the minister walk that back … that’s as it should be.”

On his visit, Smotrich is expected to participate in an event of the US-based Israel Bonds group taking place March 12-14. The Israeli official is expected to arrive in Paris at the end of March for a memorial event for a French Likud party member. A French Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Thursday that they were not informed officially about Smotrich’s visit, but if such a visit takes place they will have no contact with him.

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