Israel’s hard-Right finance minister in row over money for West Bank settlements

Israel finance minister Bezalel Smotrich - Israel’s hard-Right minister in row over refusing to divert settlement money to war effort
Bezalel Smotrich is refusing to divert funds for West Bank settlements - Shutterstock /Gil Cohen
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Israel’s hard-Right finance minister said there are “two million Nazis in the West Bank” in an angry pushback against plans to divert money from settlements to the war effort.

The opposition has threatened to block the new budget unless Bezalel Smotrich, a controversial figure invited into government to prop up the coalition, transfers funds from the illegal outposts and religious schools to boost war coffers.

Israeli media on Monday quoted a letter sent by opposition leader and coalition cabinet member Benny Gantz to Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, saying his party’s five ministers would vote against the new budget unless it is amended.

The opposition is accusing Mr Smotrich for reckless spending such as funding groups that support yeshiva students in refusing to serve in the army and boosting illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Mr Gantz in a letter to the prime minister said spending such large sums on controversial projects “will harm national resilience and unity of Israeli society”.

Mr Smotrich, who grew up in settlements, on Monday defended the move, saying the funding is crucial for his country’s survival.

“There are two million Nazis in Judea and Samaria,” he told the Times of Israel, using the biblical term for the West Bank, “who hate us exactly as the Nazis of Hamas-Isis in Gaza do.”

EU’s foreign policy chief ‘appalled’

Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said on Monday he was “appalled” to learn that the Israeli government is committing new funds towards West Bank settlements in the middle of a war.

“This is not self-defence and will not make Israel safer,” he said on Twitter.

“The settlements are a grave breach of international human rights law, and they are Israel’s greatest security liability.”

Mr Smotrich, who urged the government earlier this year to prepare to double the settlements’ population to one million, came under fire from more moderate members of the cabinet earlier on in the war when he refused to transit tax revenues that Israel collects for the Palestinian Authority to the West Bank.

Smoldering tensions in the West Bank

Israeli politicians and officials from across the political spectrum including the defence minister urged Mr Smotrich to unfreeze the funds, warning that the move risks to further ignite smouldering tensions in the West Bank.

Mr Smotrich fought back in an open letter on Monday morning, claiming that the contentious 900 million shekels (£190 million) in the budget would go towards teachers’ salaries, “security needs” in the West Bank and other expenses.

He also said the government will allocate 3.5 billion shekel towards funding hotel stays for over 100,000 people evacuated from border towns and villages in the country’s north and south.

Another 2 billion was expected to go to the National Security Ministry led by another far-right politician, to arm the police and establish an armed community defence team in illegal West Bank settlement.

U.S. officials previously expressed concern that the ministry was alarming the settlers who have been harassing local Palestinians.

In recent weeks, the Biden administration raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on settlements for the violence in the West Bank.

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