The Israeli State Prosecutor’s Office has decided not to open a criminal investigation into comments on Twitter by Knesset member Bezalel Smotrich in December, in which he called for the closure of Route 60, a major West Bank highway, to Arab motorists.
The comments were made following attacks at a junction along the highway.
Responding to a demand by a left-wing group, Yesh Din Volunteers for Human Rights, that a criminal investigation be opened against Smotrich for incitement to racism and violence, Deputy State Attorney Nurit Litman, noted that Smotrich, who has become the No. 2 figure in the Union of Right-Wing Parties Knesset faction, “was not calling for separating Jewish and Arab motorists all over the country and in all aspects of life, but just on Route 60, which is the highway on which the attacks were carried out, and only with respect to vehicles on the roads.”
As a result, Litman stated, it would be difficult to prove that Smotrich’s comments were designed to incite racism. “A review of the remarks does not raise concrete suspicion of this offense,” she wrote, adding that when it comes to criminal offenses relating to freedom of expression, the prosecutor’s office policy is to seek prosecution only under the most “limited and cautious” circumstances.
“It appears,” Litman wrote, “that Smotrich’s remarks were not made in a vacuum, but rather against the backdrop of deadly terrorist attacks that exacted significant losses of life. When it comes to the statement, it cannot be taken out of its context and the security reality that was the background of it being made.” There were therefore no grounds for opening a criminal investigation against him, she wrote.
Smotrich’s comments were made in a tweet on December 13, in which he made reference to Jewish residents of the West Bank, whom he called “heroes and pioneers.” He urged them “to go out this evening and close Highway 60 for its entire length to Arab vehicular traffic.” He added: “If there are terrorist attacks, there are no Arabs on the highways. Our lives come before their quality of life.”
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Earlier that day, two Israeli soldiers were killed and a soldier and a civilian were seriously wounded in an attack near the Jewish settlement of Givat Asaf. A few days earlier, a shooting attack was carried out near the entrance to the settlement of Ofra, in which six people were injured, including a pregnant woman whose baby died following the attack.
In requesting a criminal investigation, Yesh Din’s legal adviser, Michael Sfard, characterized Smotrich’s tweet as “pointing an accusing finger at all of the Arabs, whoever they may be, and calling for them to be detained and harmed by closing highways.”
Sfard attached reports obtained by Yesh Din of 25 cases in which Palestinians were said to have been attacked on Route 60 less than 24 hours after Smotrich’s tweet. According to the information from Yesh Din, the violence included shots fired at homes, stones thrown at cars and the chopping down of trees.
Sfard acknowledged that it was impossible to directly attribute the attacks to the tweet, but he said Smotrich’s comments “fell on receptive ears” that incited the “hero” residents of the West Bank to action. And with regard to the context of the period noted by the deputy state attorney, Sfard said: “Incitement to racism is more dangerous when it is made during a period that is not tranquil.”