ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Far-right Ben Gvir: 'We are returning home, to Gush Katif'

Cabinet members call to resettle Gaza, encourage Gazans to leave, at jubilant conference

11 ministers, 15 coalition MKs present amid dancing at right-wing confab attended by thousands; Likud minister appears to endorse coercive measures to promote Palestinian emigration

Jeremy Sharon is The Times of Israel’s legal affairs and settlements reporter

Government ministers and coalition MKs dance during a conference promoting the revival of Jewish settlements in Gaza, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. National Security Minister itamar Ben Gvir is at front, center. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Government ministers and coalition MKs dance during a conference promoting the revival of Jewish settlements in Gaza, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. National Security Minister itamar Ben Gvir is at front, center. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

In front of an impassioned audience of thousands of right-wing activists, 11 government ministers and 15 coalition lawmakers pledged Sunday night to rebuild Jewish Israeli settlements in the heart of the Gaza Strip, with some also encouraging the emigration of the Palestinian population after the war with Hamas is over.

Speaking amid a carnival-like atmosphere at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the leader of the ultranationalist Religious Zionism party, extolled the virtues of creating new settlements, declaring: “God willing, we will settle and we will be victorious.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, leader of the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party, told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was not present, and the audience that it was “time to return home to Gush Katif” — the name of the Israeli settlement bloc in Gaza that was evacuated in the 2005 Disengagement.

Smotrich and Ben Gvir, together with six coalition MKs, signed what was dubbed the “Covenant of Victory and Renewal of Settlement,” which pledged that the signatories would “grow Jewish settlements full of life” in the Gaza Strip.

Alongside them, Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party also called for building settlements in Gaza and “encouraging voluntary emigration.”

But Karhi went further than his fellow ministers, saying that the war imposed on Israel by the Hamas terror group meant that Gazan civilians could now be coerced into saying they want to leave the territory.

Similarly, one banner in the crowd said, “Only a transfer [of Palestinians from Gaza] will bring peace.”

Said Ben Gvir: “To encourage voluntarily, yes; to encourage voluntarily, you’re right. To encourage them voluntarily to go away from here, you’re right.”

A banner reading ‘Only a transfer [of Palestinians from Gaza] will bring peace,” at a conference promoting the revival of Jewish settlements in Gaza, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Footage from the conference drew backlash on social media, with critics noting that government and coalition ministers were gleefully dancing while a war is raging, tens of thousands of Israelis are displaced, soldiers are being killed on a near-daily basis, and 136 hostages are still being held by terrorists in Gaza.

Netanyahu himself didn’t attend the conference, and indicated Saturday night that he opposes resettling Gaza and that this wasn’t an accepted government policy.

Asked about the issue at a televised press conference, the premier said lawmakers and ministers were allowed to speak their minds, but Israel’s policy on postwar Gaza was set by the full security cabinet, the body authorized to make such decisions, and that no decision to resettle Gaza had been made. His opposition to revived Jewish settlement in Gaza “has not changed,” he said.

‘Correcting the mistake’

Sunday night’s conference was organized by the Nachala settlement activist group and the West Bank’s Samaria Regional Council and its head Yossi Dagan.

The event’s express purpose was to serve as a rallying cry to the general public and the government to take advantage of the current war, in which the Israel Defense Forces has asserted control over large parts of the Gaza Strip, and begin to build Jewish settlements in the coastal enclave once again.

The crowd at a conference promoting the revival of Jewish settlements in Gaza, at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Israel dismantled its 21 settlements in the Gaza Strip, and compelled their 8,000 residents to leave, when it unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005, pulling back to the pre-1967 lines. Hamas violently ousted the Fatah faction of the PA and seized power in Gaza in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to impose a blockade to try to limit the terror group’s ability to arm itself.

Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, attended and called for the reconstruction of Jewish settlements in Gaza, as did the numerous settler leaders who organized the event.

Ben Gvir, like many other speakers, argued that the evacuation of the settlements in the 2005 Disengagement had resulted in terrorism and rocket fire emanating from the territory against Israeli citizens, culminating in the October 7 massacre in which thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded Israel, murdering some 1,200 and taking 253 hostages to the Strip.

“Part of correcting the mistake, of recognizing the sin of the conception that brought upon us October 7 and brought upon us the expulsion [ of settlers from Gaza in 2005], is to return home… [We] are returning home, to Gush Katif and northern Samaria,” said Ben Gvir, also referencing four settlements in the northern West Bank that were also evacuated in 2005 as part of the disengagement.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at the “Settlements Bring Security” conference in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. (Jeremy Sharon/The Times of Israel)

Endorsing the idea of getting Palestinians to leave Gaza, the hardline minister added: “We need to return home, to rule the territory, and yes, also to offer a moral and logical solution to the humanitarian problem: encourage emigration and [pass a] death penalty law [for terror convicts].”

Ben Gvir goaded Netanyahu, telling him that it was “the task of brave leadership to take brave decisions.”

Despite being a minister, Ben Gvir has been criticizing the government’s war-related policies, complaining of being sidelined. However, he has said he isn’t weighing bringing down the government for now.

Smotrich was somewhat more cautious than Ben Gvir and did not explicitly call for the construction of settlements in Gaza in his speech, although he heavily hinted that he favored such a path.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich speaks during the conference for promoting the construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

He said that Israel could either “once again run away from terrorism” or “we settle the land, control it, fight terrorism and bring security to the entire State of Israel.

“Without settlement, there is no security. And without security on Israel’s borders, there is no security in any part of Israel.”

Concluded the finance minister: “God willing, together we will be victorious; God willing, together we will settle and be victorious.”

Karhi made similar comments: “We must settle Gaza, with security forces and settlers who will wrap them and this land in love.”

And in what appeared to be a tacit endorsement of exerting pressure on Palestinian residents of Gaza to leave the territory, Karhi said: “We have an obligation to act, for our sakes and even for the sake of those purported uninvolved civilians, to [bring about] voluntary emigration — even if this war, which was imposed on us, turns this voluntary migration into a situation of ‘Coerce him until he says, ‘I want to do so’” — quoting a principle in Jewish law whereby someone can be coerced into performing certain religious obligations by physical or other forms of pressure.

Coalition show of force

In total, 11 cabinet ministers and 15 additional coalition MKs attended the conference, organizers said. The Likud ministers who came to the event were Karhi, Haim Katz, Idit Silman, May Golan and Amichai Chikli. Otzma Yehudit ministers Ben Gvir, Yitzhak Wasserlauf and Amichai Eliyahu also took part, alongside Religious Zionism’s Smotrich and Orit Strock, and UTJ’s Goldknopf.

The entire Otzma Yehudit Knesset faction was present, while far-right religious leaders, including the influential Rabbi Dov Lior, were also in attendance.

The crowd was overwhelmingly from the religious Zionist community, with hundreds of youths and many families, including young children, also participating.

Settlement activists at a conference in Jerusalem to promote the construction of Jewish settlements in Gaza go up on stage in dedicated groups which seek to establish six new settlements in the coastal enclave, January 28, 2024. (Courtesy the Nachala Settlement Movement)

Ready to move

Nachala has established six settlement groups composed of 400 families from around the country who would theoretically be willing to establish six new settlements in Gaza should the government permit such activity.

The organization has mapped out where those settlements would be constructed, including sites deep inside urban areas of the Palestinian city of Khan Younis and in the heart of Gaza City.

Speaking during the conference, Nachala chairwoman and veteran settler activist Daniella Weiss also endorsed the idea of having Gazans leave the territory.

“Millions of war refugees go from country to country around the world,” she declared, asking why “only the monsters who grew in Gaza and turned this beautiful part of the land into a ghost land — only they should be connected to it? They, specifically, can’t move from a land they turned into hell and from where they threaten to destroy Israel?

“Only the people of Israel will settle the entire Gaza Strip and will rule the entire Gaza Strip,” she concluded.

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