(JTA) — The State Department condemned far-right Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir for saying that Jewish rights to freedom of movement in the West Bank trump those of the territory’s Arab residents.
Both Ben-Gvir and the Israeli prime minister’s office fired back, claiming that his statement had been misunderstood and that he had been referring to Israeli settlers’ rights to protection from Palestinian terrorist attacks.
Ben-Gvir lives in the Israeli West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba and made the comments in an appearance Wednesday on Israeli Channel 12.
“My right, my wife’s right, my children’s right to travel on the roads of Judea and Samaria is more important than Arabs’ freedom of movement,” he said, using the Israeli government’s preferred term for the West Bank.
Turning to Arab Israeli journalist Mohammad Magadli, Ben-Gvir said, “Sorry, Mohammad, but that’s the reality, that’s the truth. My right to life precedes the right to movement.”
The remark was criticized by a series of public figures and activist groups. The Palestinian Authority called it “racist and heinous,” and additional condemnations came from Israeli opposition politicians and liberal American Jewish groups. Palestinian-American supermodel and activist Bella Hadid went after Ben-Gvir’s comments on her social media account, which has nearly 60 million followers.
The State Department condemnation marked the latest diplomatic flare-up between Israel and the United States. The Biden administration has previously objected to inflammatory statements or actions from far-right members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition including Ben-Gvir.
A State Department spokesperson denounced Ben-Gvir’s comments, telling the Times of Israel that the United States “strongly condemn[s] Minister Ben-Gvir’s inflammatory comments on the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of the West Bank.”
The spokesperson added that the U.S. “condemn[s] all racist rhetoric” and that remarks like Ben-Gvir’s are “incongruent with advancing respect for human rights for all.”
The administration has criticized Israeli settlement activity and supports the establishment of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Human rights groups in Israel and abroad have documented that Palestinians face restrictions on their freedom of movement within the territory occupied by Israel, needing to traverse checkpoints and lacking access to some roads. Israel says that access roads to settlements, and restrictions on Palestinian travel, are meant to prevent terror attacks on Israeli civilians.
In the days since he made the remark, Ben-Gvir has doubled down while insisting that he was misunderstood. He has also received backing from Netanyahu’s office. Both say his statement was referring to the idea that Israeli settlers’ right to safety from lethal attack trumps Palestinians’ right to freedom of movement. In a video statement on Friday, Ben-Gvir said, “Not only do I not regret my words. I am saying them yet again.”
In the days before Ben-Gvir made the statement, Batsheva Nigri, an Israeli settler, was killed in a shooting attack near the West Bank city of Hebron, and an Israeli father and son were killed in a shooting in the northern West Bank. Since the beginning of the year, more than two dozen Israelis and more than 150 Palestinians have been killed in escalating violence.
In an English-language social media post on Thursday, Ben-Gvir maintained that his words, which circulated widely in a video clip that he also shared, had been misquoted by “the Israeli radical left.”
“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,” he wrote. “That is why checkpoints should be placed on roads where regular terrorism and shooting by Jihadists are committed against Jews.”
In the Friday video, Ben-Gvir claimed that his statement accords with international law and said, “The right to life trumps the right to freedom of movement.”
In its statement, Netanyahu’s office said that “Israel allows maximum freedom of movement in Judea and Samaria for both Israelis and Palestinians,” and that Ben-Gvir was referring to “special security measures” that Israel’s military implemented in order to curb the threat of “Palestinian terrorists” who “take advantage of this freedom of movement to murder Israeli women, children and families by ambushing them at certain points on different routes.”
This is not the first time the Biden administration has admonished Ben-Gvir’s actions: The U.S. also slammed a visit he made earlier this year to the Temple Mount, which is revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and has been the setting for a number of violent clashes. Ben-Gvir, who is a former follower of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane and heads the Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power party, has previously been convicted of incitement to terrorism, and his appointment as national security minister was met with concern from observers in Israel and the U.S.