Fuming at reported weapons transfer to PA, far-right ministers threaten Netanyahu

Smotrich calls emergency meeting of Religious Zionism party; Ben Gvir calls on PM to publicly disavow reports or ‘face consequences’; defense minister says no arms were transferred

By TOI STAFF  Today, 11:57 am

Religious Zionist party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (right) with Otzma Yehudit party leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir in the Knesset plenum, December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Far-right ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir railed angrily at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday over reports that the government approved the transfer of a shipment of armored vehicles and weapons from the United States to the Palestinian Authority.

Both ministers claimed that the move was made without their knowledge and accused Netanyahu of plotting to lay the foundations for an alternative government with National Unity party leader Benny Gantz.

In the wake of their criticism, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Netanyahu denied that reports of an arms transfer were true. However, Netanyahu conceded the vehicles were delivered.

Citing informed Palestinian sources, the Jerusalem-based Palestinian daily Al Quds said Monday that the shipment was approved by Israel and facilitated by Jordan and will be used by several branches of the PA security forces in regaining control over West Bank areas that have become hotbeds of terror activity.

The report was picked up Wednesday by Army Radio, sparking a furious response from Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

A statement from Smotrich’s office said that the finance minister “was unaware of such a move and was burning with anger.”

“The assessment of those around Smotrich is that the transfer of arms to the PA and the [judicial overhaul compromise] steps at the President’s Residence were a payment to Benny Gantz to establish a left-wing government with him that would seek to revive the Oslo Accords,” the statement said, adding that Smotrich was calling an emergency meeting of his faction.<

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir was more direct.

“Mr. Prime Minister, if you don’t state in your own voice that the reports about the transfer of arms to the terrorists of the Palestinian Authority are false, there will be consequences,” he said. “If your intention is to try and build an Oslo II government, please inform your ministers and the public so that we can act accordingly.”

Ben Gvir had already scheduled a meeting of his Otzma Yehudit faction for Wednesday to discuss his anger with Netanyahu, who has held up his efforts to harshen conditions for Palestinian security prisoners.

While Netanyahu did not immediately comment on the weapons transfer issue, Gallant denied that arms had been sent to the PA.

“Contrary to various false reports, there have been no transfers of arms or deadly weapons to the Palestinian Authority since Defense Minister Gallant took office,” a ministry statement said. “Any attempt to portray things differently is a lie.”

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Defense Ministry body responsible for Palestinian civil affairs, also issued a denial.

“There is no truth to the various reports on the issue. We clarify that no guns were transferred to the Palestinian Authority in the last year,” COGAT said.<

Netanyahu later issued his own denial but conceded the armored vehicles were handed over.

“There is no limit to the fake news, so these are the facts,” Netanyahu said. “Since this government was formed we have not given a single weapon to the Palestinian Authority.”

Netanyahu said the government had merely complied with a decision taken in January 2022 by the previous government, when Gantz was defense minister, to allow several armored vehicles to be sent to the PA to replace older ones.

“That’s what we did, not APCs, not tanks, not Kalachnikovs, nothing,” he said. “Sometimes even the fake news isn’t bullet proof and it’s good that we are bursting the lies.”

The Haaretz daily reported that some 10 vehicles were sent to the PA.

The US State Department issued the following statement after the Monday report: “As a general matter we do not comment on specific transfers. That said, we can say that US security assistance to the Palestinian Authority does not include provision of weapons or ammunition to the PA security forces.

“We reiterate our continued commitment to cooperating with the Palestinian Authority, in coordination with the Government of Israel, to improve the security situation in the West Bank,” the statement continued. “We remain deeply concerned by the rising levels of violence in the West Bank over the past year and reiterate our view that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and security.

“We continue to urge Israel and the Palestinian security forces to work together to improve the situation in the West Bank,” the State Department said.

While hard-right elements of the government have long criticized the transfer of weapons to the PA, Netanyahu and Israel’s security establishment maintain a different approach, viewing PA President Mahmoud Abbas and his security forces as an important ally in combating terror in the West Bank.

File: Undated image of Palestinian Authority security forces with the Fatah flag. (Hamas-affiliated al-Aqsa TV channel)<

However, as the PA faces a legitimacy crisis over its failure to deliver Palestinian statehood or even hold elections, its popularity has waned significantly, particularly in the northern West Bank where rivals have taken up weapons and challenged its authority.

Armed groups in Jenin and Nablus have carried out regular shooting attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians. Israel says the weakening of the PA has left it with no choice but to send its own soldiers into such cities in the northern West Bank to arrest those responsible for attacks and confiscate the growing amounts of weapons that are being stockpiled there.

The PA argues that such raids hamper its legitimacy further, and insists that Israel let it deal with the problem on its own.

After a two-day IDF operation in Jenin in July, Israel appeared to acquiesce, reducing the frequency of such raids in order to give the PA space to operate.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

September 13, 2023 | 1 Comment »

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