While Israel’s government has been vague about its vision for what happens to the Gaza Strip — and the roughly two and a half million Palestinians who live there — after the war, the country’s far-right settler movement has a very clear idea of what it wants.
Over the weekend, thousands of right-wing activists attended the “Settlement Brings Security” conference in Jerusalem. On display in the foyer was a huge green map of Gaza, dotted with clusters of proposed Jewish settlements.
The map showed a Star of David placed on top of Gaza City. Prior to Israel’s recent assault, which drove out most of its population, it was Gaza’s largest community, with 600,000 Palestinian residents.
Organizers at the conference stood behind booths handing out T-shirts and brochures inviting potential settlers to make early plans to relocate.
Israeli settler organizer Daniella Weiss spoke at the Settlement Brings Security conference in Jerusalem. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)”Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu left us an opening for returning to Gaza,” said chief settler organizer Daniella Weiss, one of the movement’s most prominent voices. “He invites this pressure that you see here today,” she told CBC News at the event.
The implication was that the conference was actually part of a broader — but not yet public — Israeli government strategy to occupy the Palestinian territory when the war ends.
A powerful movementOfficially, Netanyahu does not support resettlement of Gaza, saying in November it was “not a realistic goal.”
During talks last week with the United States, Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, reportedly ruled it out again.
But underscoring how politically powerful the settler movement has become in Israel, nearly a third of Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers as well as up to 15 additional Knesset members, including members of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, attended Settlement Brings Security.
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Among the highest-profile attendees were National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, both of whom are reviled by many Israelis on the political left and centre, who accuse them of being racists.
“If you don’t want another 7th of October, you have to return home and control the territory,” Ben-Gvir told the crowd in a keynote address.
Establishing Jewish settlements in Gaza would be illegal under international law, and the forced removal of Palestinians from their communities would amount to a war crime.
Nonetheless, Israeli political watchers say within a society struggling to deal with the trauma of the Hamas-led attacks on Oct. 7, which killed about 1,200 people, the idea of expanding Jewish communities into Gaza under the supervision of Israel’s military is seeing growing support.
Palestinians displaced by the Israel air and ground offensive on the Gaza Strip take shelter near the border fence with Egypt in Rafah, on Jan. 24. (Hatem Ali/The Associated Press)”We can no longer look at this as some kind of fringe phenomena,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli-Canadian pollster and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.
“Even if the idea [of settling Gaza] sounds far-fetched right now, we have to realize that over time, Israel has developed a tradition of beginning with what seem like extreme policies on the margins and [them] then creeping into the mainstream,” Scheindlin told CBC News.
“I would expect that this government over the next number of years will make efforts to increasingly legitimize the idea of Israel occupying the Gaza Strip and rebuilding settlements, and then little by little, try to lay the groundwork to do it.”
Canada rejects settlers’ plans for GazaScheindlin says political surveys done in Israel in the months following the Oct. 7 attack showed surprising strength in the notion of rebuilding Jewish settlements in Gaza — from roughly a quarter of those polled to 40 per cent, depending on the question.
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The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, West Bank, condemned the settlers’ conference and the presence of government cabinet ministers, saying the event “openly and publicly endorsed genocide, war crimes and the forcible transfer of the Palestinian people.”
Canada’s Global Affairs department issued a statement saying that “Canada rejects any proposal that calls for the forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza and the establishment of additional settlements. Such inflammatory rhetoric undermines prospects for lasting peace.”
White House spokesman John Kirby said the United States is also strongly opposed to the plans floated by the settlers.
“Irresponsible, reckless, incendiary,” Kirby told reporters. “We have made clear that there can be no reduction in Gaza territory.”
According to the UN, some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in more than 270 settlements scattered across Palestinian areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Much of the world, including the Canadian government, considers these settlements to be illegal and the most significant obstacle toward the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israel occupied the Gaza Strip between 1967 and 2005, when it withdrew its military and forcibly evacuated 21 Jewish settlements in the territory.
Avi Farhan, centre, was forced to leave an Israeli settlement in Gaza in 2005, when it was evacuated and demolished after Israel’s military occupation of the territory ended. He told CBC News he longs to return. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC News)Avi Farhan, 77, was among those evacuees, and he told CBC News at the conference that he longed to return.
“If the Palestinians change their way of thinking, we can build a riviera from Ashkelon to El Arish that will be as successful as the others,” he said.
But the vision for most of the would-be settlers at the event did not include sharing the land.
“The only thing that will bring security [for Israel] is Jewish settlements in Gaza going along with our [defence forces] ruling the place,” said Malkere Balhi.
War has displaced hundreds of thousandsIsrael’s air and ground assaults on Gaza have left the territory in ruins. Gaza’s health ministry says more than 26,750 Palestinians have been killed in the war so far, the vast majority of them civilians.
A recent study by the World Bank concluded 45 per cent of buildings in Gaza are likely damaged beyond repair, and it’s unclear whether hundreds of thousands of people who’ve been forced out of their homes will be able to return.
Many on Israel’s right have an unshakable belief that the 2005 withdrawal helped Hamas embed itself in Gaza and directly led to the attacks of Oct. 7. What would happen to the more than 2.3 million Palestinians who now live there is something they don’t bother with.
Palestinians react during a protest against Israeli settlements near Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Sept. 15, 2023. (Raneen Sawafta/Reuters)In his speech at the conference, Ben-Gvir said, “We must encourage voluntary migration.”
When CBC News asked Israeli lawmaker Moshe Feiglin, leader of the far-right Zehut Party, if he believed Palestinians should be forcibly removed from Gaza, he answered “absolutely.”
Beyond the conference, many Israelis express frustration or anger that the settlement issue is being discussed while the fighting is still going on. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said such talk was a “disgrace” and illustrated how Netanyahu’s government had become captured by extremists.
Relatives of Israeli hostages in Gaza are also not pleased. Ofri Bibs, whose brother is being held by Hamas militants, said scenes at the conference of ministers dancing and celebrating a potential return to the territory amounted to “dancing on the blood of the kidnapped and the blood of the soldiers who are killed there.”
Scheindlin, the political analyst, says the strong turnout to the event — estimated to be up to 5,000 people — should serve as a warning to Canada and other supporters of Israel.
“What it should say to Israel’s allies is, listen to what the intentions really are. This is the kind of direction the government might actually take.”