In the absence of an official Israeli post-war plan, settlers push back their goal of a Jewish Gaza Strip

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While the Israeli government remains vague on its vision of what will happen to the Gaza Strip – and the approximately two and a half million Palestinians who live there – after the war, the country’s far-right movement has an idea very clear about what he wants. .

Over the weekend, thousands of right-wing activists attended the “Settlements Bring Security” conference in Jerusalem. In the lobby was a huge green map of Gaza, dotted with groups of proposed Jewish settlements.

The map showed a Star of David placed atop Gaza City. Before the recent Israeli attack, which drove out most of its population, it was Gaza’s largest community, with 600,000 Palestinian residents.

Conference organizers stood behind booths handing out T-shirts and brochures urging potential settlers to quickly plan their move.

Israeli settlement organizer Daniella Weiss at a conference in Jerusalem.
Israeli settlement organizer Daniella Weiss spoke at the Settlement Brings Security conference in Jerusalem. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC)

“Prime Minister (Benjamin) Netanyahu gave us an opportunity to return to Gaza,” said Daniella Weiss, chief settlement organizer, one of the movement’s most prominent voices. “He’s bringing 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 – strategy by the Israeli government to occupy Palestinian territory at the end of the war.

A powerful movement

Officially, Netanyahu does not support Gaza resettlement, saying in November that it was “not a realistic goal.”

During negotiations last week with the United StatesIsraeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant would have once again ruled out this possibility.

But underscoring how politically powerful the settlement movement has become in Israel, nearly a third of Netanyahu’s ministers as well as up to 15 other Knesset members, including members of Netanyahu’s Likud party, attended “Implementation brings security.”

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Among the most high-profile participants were National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, both vilified by many Israelis from the political left and center, who accuse them of being racist.

“If you don’t want another October 7, you have to go home and control the territory,” Ben-Gvir told the crowd in an opening speech.

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 observers say that in a society struggling to cope with the trauma of Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks, which killed about 1,200 people, the idea of ​​expanding Jewish communities to Gaza under the supervision of the Israeli army is meeting with growing support. .

A view of a large number of tents is visible in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip, at a site where Palestinians are sheltering from the Israeli offensive against Hamas.
Palestinians displaced by the Israeli air and ground offensive in the Gaza Strip take refuge near the border fence with Egypt in Rafah on January 24. (Hatem Ali/Associated Press)

“We can no longer view this as some kind of fringe phenomenon,” said Dahlia Scheindlin, an Israeli-Canadian pollster and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

“Even though the idea (of colonizing Gaza) seems far-fetched at the moment, we must realize that over time Israel has developed a tradition of starting with what appear to be extreme policies on the fringes and then seep into the mainstream,” Scheindlin told CBC News.

“I would expect that this government, over the next few years, will make efforts to increasingly legitimize the idea of ​​Israel occupying the Gaza Strip and rebuilding the settlements, and then, little by little, try to prepare the ground to achieve this.”

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Scheindlin says political investigations Results in Israel in the months following the October 7 attack showed surprising strength in the notion of rebuilding Jewish settlements in Gaza – from about a quarter of respondents to 40 percent, depending on the question.

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The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, West Bank, sentenced the settlers’ conference and the presence of government ministers, claiming that the event “openly and publicly endorsed the genocide, war crimes and forcible transfer of the Palestinian people.”

Canada’s Department of Global Affairs released a statement saying that “Canada rejects any proposals calling 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 was also strongly opposed to the projects initiated by the settlers.

“Irresponsible, reckless, inflammatory,” Kirby told reporters. “We have made it clear that there can be no reduction in the territory of Gaza.”

According to the UN, Some 700,000 Israeli settlers live in more than 270 settlements scattered across the Palestinian areas of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Much of the world, including the Canadian government, views these settlements as illegal and the most significant obstacle to the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israel occupied the Gaza Strip between 1967 and 2005, when it withdrew its army and forcibly evacuated 21 Jewish settlements in the territory.

Avi Farhan, 77, 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 can't wait to return.
Avi Farhan, center, 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 can’t wait to return. (Adrian Di Virgilio/CBC News)

Avi Farhan, 77, was among the evacuees and told CBC News at the conference he couldn’t wait to return.

“If 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 of most of the future settlers at the event did not include land sharing.

“The only thing that will bring security (for Israel) is for the Jewish settlements in Gaza to join forces with our (defense forces) running the region,” Malkere Balhi said.

The war has displaced hundreds of thousands of people

Israel’s air and ground attacks on Gaza have left the territory in ruins. Gaza’s health ministry says more than 26,750 Palestinians have been killed so far in the war, the vast majority of them civilians.

A recent World Bank study concluded that 45 percent of buildings in Gaza are likely damaged beyond repair, and it is unclear whether hundreds of thousands of people who were forced to leave their homes will be able to return.

Many on Israel’s right hold the unwavering belief that the 2005 withdrawal helped Hamas gain a foothold in Gaza and directly led to the October 7 attacks. What would happen to the more than 2.3 million Palestinians living there today is something they don’t mind. with.

Palestinians react during a demonstration against Israeli settlements near Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, September 15, 2023.
Palestinians react during a protest against Israeli settlements near Nablus, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, September 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 thought Palestinians should be forcibly expelled from Gaza, he replied “absolutely.”

Beyond the conference, many Israelis are expressing frustration or anger that the settlement issue is being discussed while fighting continues. Opposition leader Yair Lapid said such remarks were a “disgrace” and illustrated how Netanyahu’s government had been captured by extremists.

Relatives of Israeli hostages in Gaza are not happy either. Ofri Bibs, whose brother is being held by Hamas militants, said the scenes of the conference of ministers dancing and celebrating a potential return to the territory amounted to “dancing on the blood of the kidnapped and on the blood of the soldiers who were there.” are killed”.

Scheindlin, the political analyst, believes the large turnout for the event — estimated at 5,000 people — should serve as a warning to Canada and other supporters of Israel.

“What he should be saying to Israel’s allies is to listen to what their intentions really are. This is the kind of direction the government could actually take.”

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