Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich

Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich walks with soldiers during a visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza near Israel's border structure along the Gaza Strip on November 14, 2023.

(Photo: Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP via Getty Images)

After US Rebuke, Top Israeli Ministers Double Down on Ethnic Cleansing Push

Itamar Ben-Gvir, Israel's national security minister, declared in response to the U.S. State Department that Israel is "not another star on the American flag."

Two leading Israeli government ministers have brushed aside criticism from the U.S. State Department and doubled down on their push for the ethnic cleansing of the Gaza Strip, publicly demanding what they have cynically described as the "voluntary migration" of Palestinians out of the besieged enclave and the return of Jewish settlements that were removed nearly two decades ago.

Bezalel Smotrich, Israel's finance minister, claimed Wednesday that the mass expulsion of Gazans would be a "humanitarian solution" and declared that "a small country like ours cannot afford a reality where, four minutes away from our settlements, there is a hotbed of hatred and terror, where there are two million people who wake up every morning with the desire to destroy the state of Israel."

Smotrich's comments came a day after U.S. State Department spokesman Matthew Miller issued a statement rebuking the finance minister and Israel's national security minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, for "advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza."

Miller called the high-ranking officials' comments "irresponsible" and claimed they don't align with what the Biden administration has "been told repeatedly and consistently by the government of Israel, including by the prime minister."

Ben-Gvir quickly hit back, writing in a social media post on Tuesday that Israel is "not another star on the American flag."

"The United States is our best friend, but first of all we will do what is best for the state of Israel: The migration of hundreds of thousands from Gaza will allow the residents of the enclave to return home and live in security and protect the IDF soldiers," the Israeli minister wrote.

Asked during a Wednesday press briefing about Ben-Gvir's response, Miller said that "Israel is a sovereign country that does make its own decisions."

"I'm not surprised that he continues to double down and make those statements," Miller added, "but they are not only in contradiction with United States policy and what we think is in the best interests of the Israeli people, the Palestinian people, the broader region, and ultimately stability in the world, but they are in direct contradiction of his own government's policy."

Miller's insistence that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir's position is not aligned with official Israeli policy toward Gaza is belied by repeated public and private comments from Israeli lawmakers, key government ministries, and top officials—including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has reportedly sought out countries willing to "absorb" displaced Gazans.

On Wednesday, The Times of Israelreported that "Israeli officials have held clandestine talks with the African nation of Congo and several others for the potential acceptance of Gaza emigrants."

"Israelis do not hear themselves. Since the war began, lawmakers and cabinet members have repeatedly made statements that could be seen as indicating an intention to carry out crimes against humanity."

Expert observers have argued that Israel's U.S.-backed military, which has relentlessly bombed Gaza for nearly three months straight, is clearly acting as if its objective is to permanently expel Palestinians from the enclave, where 90% of the population has been internally displaced. If allowed to return, many Gazans won't have a home to go back to, as 70% of the territory's housing units have been damaged or destroyed by Israeli airstrikes.

"As evacuation orders and military operations continue to expand and civilians are subjected to relentless attacks on a daily basis, the only logical conclusion is that Israel's military operation in Gaza aims to deport the majority of the civilian population en masse," United Nations' special rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons said last month.

Forcible transfer is a war crime under international humanitarian law.

South Africa is currently leading a case at the International Court of Justice accusing the Israeli government of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Gaza.

In an editorial on Wednesday, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called South Africa's charges "a wake-up call for Israel" and accused government officials—including Smotrich and Ben-Gvir—of inciting war crimes.

"Israelis do not hear themselves," the editorial reads. "Since the war began, lawmakers and cabinet members have repeatedly made statements that could be seen as indicating an intention to carry out crimes against humanity."

The editorial points to a Knesset meeting on Wednesday during which one lawmaker suggested that Israel should "raze all the buildings" in northern Gaza and "build neighborhoods" for Israeli settlers.

Haaretz's editorial board argued that "the most effective way" for Israel to push back on South Africa's genocide case is to "remove from the government those who incite war crimes."

"This is the only way to persuade the world that the deranged ideas they are spreading do not reflect reality," the editorial states.

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