There was outrage on Monday after an Israeli minister in charge of the occupied West Bank claimed that there was no Palestinian history or culture and no such thing as a Palestinian people.
Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister who earlier this month incited anger across the world by calling for the “eradication” of a Palestinian community, made the comments on Sunday in a conference speech while on a visit to France.
“Is there a Palestinian history or culture? There is none,” he can be heard saying in footage of the speech shared widely on social media. “There is no such thing as a Palestinian people.”
As he made the speech, he stood at a podium covered in what appeared to be a variation of the Israeli flag that showed an Israeli state with expanded boundaries that included the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza and Jordan.
A spokesperson for Smotrich, head of one of the religious-nationalist parties in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-right coalition, said the flag was set decoration by the conference organizers and that the minister was a guest.
Smotrich 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.
Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh condemned Smotrich’s remarks, saying they amounted to incitement to violence.
A separate statement by the Palestinian foreign ministry said that, by denying the existence of the Palestinian people and their legitimate national rights in their homeland, Israeli leaders “foster an environment that fuels Jewish extremism and terrorism against our people”.
Such positions “continue the spiral of violence with the aim of sabotaging efforts to achieve calm.”
After two Jewish settlers were killed by a Palestinian gunman near the West Bank town of Huwara last month, and settlers responded by torching homes and cars there, killing one Palestinian, Smotrich said Huwara should be “erased”. In the face of international condemnation of the remark, he later said he “misspoke”, but he did not apologize.
The West Bank has seen a surge of confrontations over the past year, with near-daily Israeli military raids and escalating violence by Jewish settlers, amid a spate of attacks by Palestinians.
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.
Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, areas Israel captured in a 1967 war.
U.S.-brokered peace talks have been stalled since 2014 and Palestinians say Israel has undermined their hope for a viable state by expanding Jewish settlements on occupied land.