Ottawa condemns Israeli minister’s ‘shameful’ remarks about Palestinian people

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Canada is condemning comments made by Israel’s finance minister, who claimed there is no such thing as Palestinian history or culture and no such thing as a “Palestinian people.”

Bezalel Smotrich, who is also responsible for administering the occupied West Bank, made the comments during a speech he gave on Sunday at a conference in France.

“Is there a Palestinian history or culture? There is none,” he can be heard saying in footage shared widely on social media. “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”

When asked for a reaction to Smotrich’s statement, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada cited Canada’s support for a two-state solution.

“These shameful comments from Minister Smotrich are unacceptable,” the spokesperson said in an email. “We call on the Israeli government to disavow these comments, and for an immediate de-escalation of tensions as we enter the important upcoming holiday season.”

Smotrich, who heads a religious-nationalist party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, made the speech on the same day that Israeli and Palestinian officials met in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for de-escalation talks ahead of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the Jewish Passover holiday.

The upcoming period is sensitive because large numbers of Jewish and Muslim faithful pour into Jerusalem’s Old City, the emotional heart of the conflict and a flashpoint for violence.

U.S., EU condemn Smotrich’s comments

Other Western allies also criticized Smotrich’s remarks.

“We utterly object to that kind of language,” said John Kirby, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson. “We don’t want to see any rhetoric, any action or rhetoric … that can stand in the way or become an obstacle to a viable two-state solution, and language like that does.”

The European Union said it “firmly deplores yet another unacceptable comment by Minister Smotrich,” calling it dangerous and counterproductive.

Deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq described Smotrich’s remarks as “completely unhelpful.”

“Obviously, there very clearly and distinctly is a Palestinian people,” he told reporters in New York. “Their rights are upheld by the United Nations.”

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned Smotrich’s remarks, saying they amounted to an incitement to violence.

There has been a surge of confrontations in the West Bank over the past year, with near-daily Israeli military raids, escalating violence by Jewish settlers and attacks by Palestinians.

Israeli protesters attend a rally against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new hard-right government in the coastal city of Tel Aviv on January 21, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty Images)

Over the past year, Israeli forces have killed more than 250 Palestinians, including fighters and civilians, while more than 40 Israelis and foreigners have died in Palestinian attacks.

The heightened tensions with the Palestinians coincide with mass demonstrations inside Israel against Netanyahu’s plans to overhaul the judicial system.

Opponents of the measure have carried out disruptive protests and the debate has embroiled the country’s military; some reservists are refusing to show up for service. Netanyahu has rejected a compromise by Israel’s figurehead president.

Last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly spoke with her Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen about the planned reform. Ottawa’s official readout of their conversation says that “Joly underscored Canada’s support of democracy, the rule of law and the institutions that uphold them.”

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