The US on Thursday excoriated National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir for claiming that Jews’ right to travel and live safely in the West Bank is more important than Arabs’ freedom of movement.
In a rare comment calling out the Otzma Yehudit party leader by name, a State Department spokesperson condemned the remarks as inflammatory and compared them to racist rhetoric dangerously amplified by senior officials.
The US “strongly condemn[s] Minister Ben-Gvir’s inflammatory comments on the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of the West Bank,” the spokesperson told The Times of Israel Thursday night.
A day earlier, while explaining his support for tightening restrictions on Palestinians amid an ongoing terror wave, Ben Gvir told Channel 12 news “My right, and my wife’s and my children’s rights, to get around on the roads in Judea and Samaria, is more important than the right to movement for Arabs.”
“Sorry Mohammad,” he said to Channel 12 journalist Mohammad Magadli, who argued with him during the interview. “But that’s the reality. That’s the truth. My right to life comes before their right to movement.”
While the US has issued statements condemning Ben Gvir in the past — including when he attended a memorial service for the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane shortly before entering government in December and also after he paid a pair of visits this year to Jerusalem’s flashpoint Temple Mount as a minister — this appeared to be the first time the State Department called him out by name in its censure.
The spokesperson said the State Department “condemn[s] all racist rhetoric,” but stopped short of explicitly calling Ben Gvir’s remarks “racist.”
“Such messages are particularly damaging when amplified by those in leadership positions and are incongruent with advancing respect for human rights for all,” the statement added.
“[US] President [Joe] Biden and Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken have been clear that both Israelis and Palestinians deserve to enjoy equal measures of freedom and security,” the spokesperson said.
In addition to the State Department, several US Jewish groups issued statements censuring Ben Gvir.
The centrist Democratic Majority for Israel said it has long warned that Ben Gvir should have no place in the Knesset or in Israel’s government.
“His latest racist statement is the most recent evidence that Ben Gvir should not be part of Israel’s government or parliament. Israel will be stronger without him in a position of authority,” DMFI added, joining the growing calls for the national security minister’s ouster.
The more left-wing Israel Policy Forum said it “strongly condemns” Ben Gvir’s comments, adding that “such rhetoric is overtly racist and unacceptable.”
“Ben Gvir’s consistently hateful rhetoric harms Israel’s standing in the world and impacts stability for its citizens,” the group added.
Following widespread uproar over the remarks, parts of which were translated for foreign audiences, Ben Gvir issued a tweet Thursday night pointing out that critics had cut out the last sentence about his “right to life” from the widely circulated clips. He insisted that he wasn’t prioritizing Jewish freedom of movement over Arab freedom of movement, but rather the Jewish right to live over Arab freedom of movement.
“This is how fake news is spread: I said yesterday on a TV broadcast that the right of Jews to live and not be murdered in terror attacks prevails over the right of Arabs in Judea and Samaria to travel on the roads without security restrictions. That is why checkpoints should be placed on roads where regular terrorism and shooting by Jihadists are committed against Jews,” he wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.
“But the Israeli radical left selectively cut a section out of my statement, purposefully misquoted even that, and removed the context in order to slander me as if I had made a racist declaration that Jews deserve more civil rights than Arabs,” he continued.
Ben Gvir has long faced accusations of racism due to a history of inflammatory comments toward Arabs and Palestinians and his identification as a disciple of Kahane.
Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir has been convicted on terror-related charges for anti-Arab activities. He insists he has moderated in recent years, and does not believe in all of the views of his mentor, such as Kahane’s calls for expelling all Arabs — instead, Ben Gvir has said he only supports expelling “disloyal” Arabs. The far-right Otzma Yehudit party chairman has continued to speak at annual memorial events for Kahane.
In a separate interview on the Kan public broadcaster on Wednesday night, Ben Gvir — who oversees the police — said the spiraling crime wave in Arab communities poses a security threat to the State of Israel and could spill over into Jewish communities, which he termed “a bigger threat” than the current state of near-daily murders that have only impacted the minority sector.
In response to his comment, the interviewer asked whether “we should only care [about the phenomenon] because it might spill over into Jewish communities,” leading Ben Gvir to change gears and claim that the anchor was trying to bait him into making a racist statement.
On Friday, anti-government protesters rallied in Kiryat Arba near Ben Gvir’s home. The demonstrators included members of organizations opposed to Israel’s military control of the West Bank as well as protesters against the government’s judicial overhaul.
A statement from police said two people were arrested for suspected public order violations, assault and interfering with an officer. Video showed officers forcibly detaining an acitivist of the Peace Now anti-settlement watchdog.
Another clip from Kiryat Arba showed cops scuffling with a protester after taking a Palestinian flag from him.
The protest was close to Ben Gvir’s home at a municipal park named for Kahane that also houses the grave of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 shot dead 29 Muslim worshipers and wounded 125 others at Hebron’s Tomb of Patriarchs. Ben Gvir for years hung a photo of Goldstein in his home before agreeing to take it down three years ago after it became heavily publicized in local media and began to harm him politically.
Activists claimed police guarded Goldstein’s grave and prevented them from approaching it.
“Ben Gvir is a terrorist,” protesters could be heard chanting.