JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday defended comments by his far-right national security minister that had sparked a row with U.S. supermodel Bella Hadid and drawn condemnation as racist from the Palestinians and Washington.
In an television interview on Wednesday, Itamar Ben-Gvir said that the right to life and safe travel of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank trumped the right to freedom of movement for Palestinians.
Bella Hadid, whose father is Palestinian, responded a day later, telling her near 60 million followers on Instagram: “In no place, no time, especially in 2023 should one life be more valuable than another’s” – prompting a rebuke in turn from the minister on Friday.
Palestinians have long railed against restrictions, including checkpoints and travel permits, imposed on them by Israel in the West Bank, where they exercise limited self-rule and which they seek as part of a future state. The United Nations has documented 645 Israeli movement obstacles across the West Bank as of August, more than half of which it said have a severe impact on Palestinians.
Ben-Gvir, who lives in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba near the West Bank city of Hebron, told N12 News on Wednesday: “My right, my wife’s right, my children’s right to travel on the roads of Judea and Samaria is more important than the right to movement for Arabs,” referring to the West Bank by its biblical Hebrew name.
On Friday, he responded to Hadid’s post, calling her an “Israel hater” and saying she had shared only a segment of the interview on her social media account in order to portray him as a racist.
Netanyahu in a statement said that Israel “allows maximum freedom of movement” for both Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank while implementing security measures to prevent Palestinian attacks.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry on Thursday condemned Ben-Gvir’s remarks on N12 News as “racist and heinous” and the U.S. State Department on Friday called his comments “inflammatory” and “racist”.
Violence in the West Bank has surged over the past 15 months, with frequent Israeli military raids, Palestinian street attacks and Jewish settler assaults on Palestinian villages.
Since January, at least 188 Palestinians and 35 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in hostilities.
On Monday, a suspected Palestinian drive-by shooting killed an Israeli woman near the settlement when Ben-Gvir lives. In another part of the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot and critically wounded a Palestinian man who appeared to be running away from them towards another wounded man.
A member of Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition, Ben-Gvir has past convictions for support for terrorism and anti-Arab incitement. He says his views have become more moderate since joining the government, without going into further detail.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war. It has continued to expand dozens of settlements that are deemed illegal by the United Nations and most countries, a view Israel disputes.
(Reporting by Henriette Chacar; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Giles Elgood)