US faces growing call to deny entry to Israel’s Bezalel Smotrich

Rights groups are urging Washington to revoke visa of Israeli minister who called for wiping out a Palestinian village.

Washington, DC – The United States government is facing growing calls from advocacy groups, including Jewish-American organisations, to impose a visa ban on a far-right Israeli minister who called for wiping out a Palestinian village.

The US Department of State had denounced Israeli Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich’s comments on Wednesday, calling them “repugnant” and “disgusting”, but advocates have said verbal condemnation is not enough.

Smotrich, an ultranationalist who also oversees civilian administration in the occupied West Bank, is set to speak at a conference in Washington, DC later in March, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on Wednesday.

“I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the state of Israel should do it,” Smotrich was quoted as saying by Israeli media outlets after Israeli settlers ransacked the Palestinian town and burned down dozens of homes and cars.

Americans for Peace Now (APN), a US Jewish group that opposes the occupation, said Smotrich’s comments were a call for a war crime and urged President Joe Biden to deny him entry into the US.

“The United States must be clear. The only thing that should be wiped out is his violent and hateful ideology. It is unacceptable abroad and it is unacceptable here,” APN said in a letter to Biden that it urged supporters to sign.

“Now Smotrich wants to bring his hatred to US soil. He has plans to travel to the United States later this month. We’re here to say that he is not welcome.”

For its part, J Street, a Jewish-American group that describes itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace, called on US officials to shun Smotrich.

“They should make clear that Smotrich’s comments and actions are immensely damaging to the US-Israel relationship,” J Street said in a statement.

“Additionally, the administration should make clear that comments promoting grave violations of human rights, such as those made by Smotrich, are grounds for re-examination of a visa for entry to the United States.”

Asked about the calls to deny entry to Smotrich, Department of State spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Thursday, “We don’t speak to individual visa records nor – as a general matter – to a particular individual’s eligibility for a US visa. Nevertheless, we’ll continue to make clear that we reject the comments from the minister, just as we did yesterday.”

The settlers’ attack on Huwara had sparked international outrage against the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with many Palestinians saying that Israeli forces watched on and did not try to stop the rampage.

Israel, accused of imposing a system of apartheid by leading human rights organisations like Amnesty International, receives at least $3.8bn of US aid annually.

Washington has been increasingly critical of the policies of Netanyahu’s far-right government, including the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. However, the Biden administration regularly reasserts its “ironclad” commitment for Israel, ruling out practical measures to counter Israeli government policies.

Progressive advocates and lawmakers have said Washington should impose conditions on its aid to Israel, but Biden has repeatedly dismissed the idea.

T’ruah, a rights group that represents hundreds of rabbis across the US, called on the Biden administration this week to revoke Smotrich’s visa and urged American Jewish organisations to refuse to engage with him.

“Not only does his comment add to the pain of families and community members harmed by the violence in Huwara, it also adds to the increasing incitement from members of Netanyahu’s new far-right, extremist government,” T’ruah CEO, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, said in a statement.

Adalah Justice Project, a Palestinian-led US advocacy group, encouraged supporters to sign on to a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to ban Smotrich from entering the country.

“The United States must ban the travel of Israel’s Bezalel Smotrich to the United States in March 2023 because of his statements that call for violence and atrocities against the Palestinian people,” the letter reads, describing the Israeli minister’s comments against Huwara as a “call for genocide”.

Democratic Senator Peter Welch said he shared a letter with Biden on Thursday, urging the US president to take a more active approach to push towards a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We have a choice: stand by passively as a withered two-state approach recedes into oblivion or do our best to reenergize it with more assertive efforts to persuade the Netanyahu government to stop further expansion of settlements in the West Bank, to halt all de facto annexations, and to reaffirm Israel’s commitment to a viable two-state solution,” the senator wrote.

“Any hope for peace and prosperity in the region depends on the United States making the right choice, right now.”

Source: Al Jazeera