Israeli minister calls for security zones around West Bank settlements to keep Palestinians away

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich attends an event in Tel AViv metropolitan area

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's hardline nationalist Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called on Monday for security zones to be set up around Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, keeping Palestinian farmers away during the olive harvest season.

The harvest season, when Palestinian olive growers spend more time in the open bringing in the crop, has often led to clashes between settlers and Palestinian inhabitants in the West Bank.

Smotrich, head of one of the religious-nationalist parties in the ruling right-wing coalition, wrote to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to demand special zones around the settlements to stop Palestinians coming near "including for the olive harvest."

While Hamas tightly controls besieged Gaza, the West Bank is a complex patchwork of hillside cities, Israeli settlements and army checkpoints that split Palestinian communities.

Smotrich said the Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip offered lessons for Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

"I demand that a written directive be issued immediately by the political echelon to the Israel Defence Forces to create those wide security zones around the settlements and roads and to prevent Arabs from approaching them," he wrote, adding he proposed compensating those who were denied access to their crops.

Netanyahu's office declined comment while Gallant's office had no immediate comment.

Smotrich, whose party draws much of its support from the settler movement, and Gallant, a former army general, have clashed repeatedly since the coalition government took power last year.

He said he had repeatedly demanded an overhaul of security policy in the area, which until now has focused on protecting the olive harvest.

"With all due respect, this is madness that I won't put up with anymore," he wrote.

His letter comes amid escalating violence in the volatile West Bank in the wake of the Hamas attack and Israel's air strikes on Gaza and ground campaign aimed at eradicating the militant group.

According to the United Nation's relief agency OCHA, West Bank settlers' attacks on Palestinians have more than doubled since Oct. 7.

Smotrich has also refused to disburse part of the tax revenue collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority under a longstanding arrangement, despite a call by Gallant to pay out the money to help maintain stability.

(Reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)