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Smotrich says hostages 'not most important' in Gaza war aims

Anger as Israeli minister Smotrich says returning hostages 'not the most important thing'
4 min read
21 February, 2024
Asked in an interview with Israel's Kan public broadcaster whether securing the 136 hostages was the most important aim, Smotrich replied 'no'.
Bezalel Smotrich insisted that Israel needs to 'destroy Hamas' [Getty]

Israel's far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has come under fire after saying that the return of captives held in Gaza was "not the most important thing" in Israel's war, saying defeating Hamas is the priority.

Asked in an interview with Israel's Kan public broadcaster whether securing the 136 hostages was the most important aim, Smotrich replied "no".

“It’s not the most important thing," Smotrich said. "Why make it a competition? Why is it so important at the moment?"

"We need to destroy Hamas. That is very important."

The finance minister also rejected calls from the hostages' families for more flexibility in Israel's negotiating position.

"At any price’ is a problem. We have to return the hostages and we have to put pressure on Hamas," he said, echoing similar remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday.

Smotrich's remarks triggered protests outside the Israeli army's headquarters in Tel Aviv, where members of the country's security cabinet were meeting.

Protesters called for a show of anger against the government, with some attempting to stop cars from reaching the defence ministry.

Relatives of the hostages lashed out at the minister, whose remarks added to mounting tensions between the Israeli government and the families.

"Mr. Smotrich, let them take your children and I will stand in the road and shout, 'It’s not the most important thing," Eli Albag, the father of captured Israeli soldier Liri Albag, was quoted by The Times of Israel as saying.

"I say to the people of Israel, whoever thinks the hostages are not important, let them take your children hostage, then you can speak. Because we have been suffering for 137 days, every day, every minute. We don’t sleep at night."

Some top Israeli officials have attempted to distance themselves from the comments.

"There is no greater mitzvah in Judaism than redeeming captives. One can argue about the way to reach the goal, but I call on the public and especially the elected officials to take into account the feelings of the families of the hostages," said Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Wednesday.

War cabinet minister Benny Gantz also weighed in.

"The return of the hostages is not only a prime goal of ours in the war, it is our moral imperative as a country and as a people," Gantz wrote on X. "It is the most urgent thing. We will not miss any opportunity to bring them home."

Israel launched its war on Gaza on 7 October with the stated aim of destroying Hamas and returning around 250 hostages who were taken by the Palestinian movement and other militant groups. So far, 112 captives have been released by Hamas as part of prisoner swaps and negotiations, with more than 100 still being held in Gaza.

Only two hostages - Fernando Simon Marman and Louis Har - have been returned by military force, following an operation in Gaza earlier this month. Hamas denied having held the two men, suggesting that they could have been held by civilians or other factions.

Israeli forces shot and killed three hostages in Gaza in December, after the men were seen walking with white flags. In January, the army also admitted that hostage Sahar Baruch was killed in a failed rescue attempt, confirming a Hamas statement from weeks earlier.

Hamas says that several more hostages have been killed by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.

Despite failing to return many captives through military force, Israel has pushed on with its war on Gaza, where it now threatens an assault on the enclave's southernmost city, Rafah, where over 1.5 million Gazans have sought shelter.

In mediated talks, Hamas has persistently called for a permanent ceasefire with a prisoner swap involving the thousands of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Israel has dismissed these demands, with Netanyahu recently branding the Hamas proposals as "bizarre".

Israel has killed over 29,000 Palestinians in Gaza and has been accused of carrying out a genocidal war of vengeance on the Palestinian people.

In January, the ICJ said in its preliminary measures ruling that Israel is plausibly committing genocide in Gaza, with Israel now officially on trial for genocide at the world court.